Artist, writer, and founder of UbuWeb Kenneth Goldsmith is probably best-known to people outside of avant-writing circles for a reading/performance he gave at Brown University during which he read a rearranged version of police victim Mike Brown’s autopsy report. The performance sparked an enormous debate about race and text and identity, a set of arguments that I suspect is far from over, but considering so much has been written about this event, and given the move of white nationalism and a kind of cardboard Christianity into the White House, I asked Goldsmith if I could interview him at least in part about his own work as an “identity artist” in the 1990s, and what follows is that conversation.
Grider: At the present you’re mostly known for your work as a writer/theorist in Conceptual Writing. How would you define Conceptual Writing (both how you define it and how you see consensus defining it), and how has it developed over the last approximately fifteen years?
Kenneth Goldsmith: Conceptual Writing was a movement that ran from the late 90s until the middle of the teens. It was the first major literary movement of the twenty-first century, one which took its cues from emergent web-based technologies as a way of constructing of literature.
Grider: This is a bit of a detour, but I’m surprised at your use of “was,” and wondering if you could comment on 1) why the use of past tense and whether conceptual writing dissolved the way many movements have over the past century, and 2) what you see as possibilities for what might come next, both in literature and in art, given that the spread of the internet was an event unrivaled by anything except the creation of the printing press. Part of this has to do with the art history has been shaped to persuade us that one movement neatly follows another, when life is much more complicated.
KG: Yeah, movements have a certain lifespan as ours did. It’s strange to think that a movement was even possible this late in the game. I mean, in the art world, there hasn’t been a “movement” in decades; but as I’ve said before writing is fifty years behind painting so that perhaps we could have been the equivalent of 60s conceptual art, another instance of a moment that happened in a time when movements were ceasing to be. I think that for the immediate future, art will become increasingly social and political to be able to combat the rise of Trump. In a way, it reminds me of the 1930s, when the ultramodernists were sidelined due to pressing political issues. They went underground for decades until the smoke cleared—think of Duchamp in the 30s; he was nowhere to be seen.
Grider: Do you see yourself participating in that rise of political art, or does it seem (like it seems to me) that some artists/writers/etc. are more suited to that than others, while other creative people (like me) are less savvy at making art that directly engages the world and simply add to the rebellion by refusing to stop making art, especially (literally, not figuratively) experimental work that neo-fascists would find degenerate? (Brief aside that my work, whether it’s art, music, or writing, is sometimes experimental but less in a vanguard way than an OuLiPo “I’ll make up some rules to follow and see what happens” way.)
KG: I don’t think it’s a choice. Artists are simply obsessed. We’re going to do whatever we do regardless of the political situation, sometimes in a more covert way, sometimes in a more open way.
Grider: Also, in times of political turbulence and both of us having lived to see the birth of remixing and sampling as creative pursuits, do you think it’s more possible now for someone to write a flarf chapbook and then embark on a conceptual writing project and then something vaguely language-poetry that incorporates bits of many movements and styles?
KG: I think it’s rather impossible to take any of those approaches; most people don’t find these valid forms of expression, accusing those movements of anti-humanism and elitism. However, for some of us, an oblique approach seems to make more sense than a direct approach, but it takes a certain type of discontent with more normative modes of expression to get to that place. It’s a strange falling-out with culture that leads us here; it’s a place where few travel.
Grider: I also recently learned that you had a career (or maybe more than one) before writing as a visual artist; what kind of work were you making, and if it led into conceptual writing in some way, how, and if not, what was responsible for the break?
KG: I was trained as a sculptor and spent a decade showing in the art world. I was making wooden books, which needed text on them. When I put text on them, I fell more in love with language, so I became a “text artist.” But I still loved words more than I loved “text art,” so the only option from there was to be a writer.
Grider: More specifically about your earlier visual work, you’d mentioned work as a visual artist specifically dealing with being Jewish during an era in which identity was often central to the conversation about art in the ’90s. How did (and does) being Jewish inform your work, both then and now?
KG: I had always been attracted to the Jewish suspicion of graven images and its embrace of textuality. To me, it resonated with ideas of conceptualism, specifically conceptual art. I think I used that reason (among many) to stop making images and start making texts. I believe that this idea is still at the basis on my literary production, in other words, the materiality of language as proposed by, say, Talmudic or Kabbalistic readings.
Grider: How would you define cultural production that reflects a Jewish identity, and in what ways did your work (then and now) mirror or respond to that definition of “Jewish” art?
KG: I was in a show called “Too Jewish” in the 90s at the Jewish Museum, for which an image of mine—portraits of Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, Abbie Hoffman, and myself—was used as the poster and promotional image for the show. I recall at the time feeling rather embarrassed by it as this piece was really an eccentric offshoot of my main austere, conceptual text-based production. I feared that such exposure would give the wrong idea that I was an identity-based Jewish artist rather than a text-based one. I was still, at that time, forging an identity as a conceptualist. Of course, artists do many things, often contradictory, but at the time, I was still trying to convince myself and others that I was one way or the other.
Grider: Given the end (or maybe just lack of centrality) of Conceptual Writing as a movement, have you given much thought to your upcoming work? Any possible return to text within the confines of the art world or are you still interested in exploring the current writing world’s approach to what text is and how it’s produced?
KG: I love the spaces in between these worlds, like UbuWeb. Ubu’s audience are mostly people who don’t fit in anywhere specifically, who have dropped out of more conventional fields: lapsed academics who are theoryheads, lapsed actors who are performance artists and so forth, not to mention a huge mix of people who view themselves as hackers, free culture people, electronic musicians, etc. It seems like everyone around Ubu has given up on notions of one or the other and have, instead embraced intersectionality, taking their cues from the network, rather than from vertical structures. I love these people and I trust them.
Grider: Considering that Jews comprised a huge number of important figures in 20th c. cultural production but didn’t necessarily define their art as Jewish, what’s the line, if any, between self-consciously Jewish art and art simply made by someone who’s Jewish?
KG: I’m not sure I can answer that without painting with too broad of a brush. I think you have to take that on a case-to-case basis.
Grider: Taking just one case, then: Mark Rothko in particular and abstract painting more generally. I wonder how much it was on the minds of US ab-ex and laters about a prohibition of idol worship more lax in Judaism than in Islam but still there. Especially with the Rothko Chapel, though, I wonder if there’s something Jewish in that refusal to depict what centuries of western art primed us to expect, but on the other hand the American impulse to assimilate so that “Markus Yakovlevich Rotkovich” became “Mark Rothko.” Pushing that a bit further, would you say that conceptual writing contained, in it’s mode of operation, refusal of an “idol” of any kind, even the idolized figure of the writer/artist?
KG: Yes and no. There were huge figures—Duchamp, Stein, Cage, Pound, Warhol, Burroughs, Oulipo, and many others. I co-edited an anthology of conceptual writing called Against Expression a few years ago, and there were as many historical figures included as there were contemporary. But I think we mostly looked at previous artists as givers of permissions rather than as idols. Their practices were strange and they paid a price for it, the same price we were willing to pay. So our take on them was empathetic and human, rather than romantic.
Grider: Maybe in contemporary terms, then, conceptual writing often presented, or seemed to present, copyright and originality as relics of mythologizing both a neatly closed text and the writer who created it. I’m thinking of Hemingway as the apotheosis of this kind of myth-making and idolization and the questioning of copyright as a kind of refusal of an “idol.” I doubt Torah commandments were on your mind when conceptual writing first came into existence, but was there any more “kill yr idols” sentiment there?
KG: No. Instead, I learned to love the odder and messier aspects of people like Hemingway; I adore him as a figure more than I do his writing, although his more journalistic stuff (Death in the Afternoon, for example) is really terrific. So it becomes for me more about being an artist and what that means and how I relate to it more than the work produced per se. Perhaps it’s something to do with getting older. I feel more empathetic towards a greater variety of artistic practitioners than I did when I was younger. It’s so difficult this thing that w do, that I feel simpatico in places where once upon a time I would’ve felt rage and opposition.
Grider: Even in 2017, Jews carry a stereotype of elitism or privilege, in the arts and more generally. Was there any friction between Jewish identity work and work made by artists underrepresented in the arts, like women or African-Americans?
KG: I’m not really sure. It’s not a discourse I was paying very much attention to.
Grider: How has your relationship to Jewishness developed over the last twenty years, and if your answer is that it stopped being relevant, you didn’t stop being Jewish, so how do you see identity and cultural production as something that can be shifted toward or away, like an artist shifting from painting to video art?
KG: For me, as I said earlier, Judaism and its relationship to textuality is really the philosophical and formal basis of my entire practice. So it’s always there, humming away quietly, driving my production. Sometimes it gets louder—I’ve been very involved with the forthcoming Walter Benjamin Arcades Project show at the Jewish Museum, and I also launched my book Capital there was well. In addition, a few summers ago I did a series of workshops and lectures at a museum in Tel Aviv, for which I was criticized regarding the boycott. However, if Israel calls, no matter how much I might find it distasteful in many respects, I answer.
Grider: Many artists whose work involves identity find that identity labels follow them around even if the work they make is entirely abstract, so how (if at all) are things different for a a Jew, perceived as white and privileged, and other artists underrepresented in the arts?
KG: I would question this notion that Jews are perceived as being privileged. Sometimes Jews are perceived as being disadvantaged, and in many cases and in many places around the world, they are disadvantaged. Even in 2017, deep prejudices persist and opportunities afforded to others are denied to Jews. The perception of any religion or race as being one thing—a stereotype—needs to be debunked.
Grider: If Jews aren’t perceived as being privileged, how would you say an average American defines “Jew” in 2017? Or even if not “an average American,” then a kind of consensus?
KG: Gee, I don’t know. I can’t speak for the average American, particularly as I live on a small island off the coast of America (as Spalding Gray so eloquently put it) and not in America itself. That said, I think I’m pretty bad at reading what other people think is average or even acceptable. As an artist, I tend to live in my own bubble, more concerned with my own projects and strange trajectories than what’s actually happening on the ground. You might call that privilege, but I think if you ask most artists, they’ll tell you that it’s more obsession than real privilege. We’re sort of stunted in that way; I think artists for that reason are really bad political spokespeople. Best to leave that to others who know more than us.
Grider: This seems as good a time as any to ask what your current plans are––any kind of return to text within the frame of visual art or something new still planted within the world of contemporary writing? Or something else––having gone to CalArts and being old enough to have witnessed the internet transform the world, lines between different arts seem increasingly blurry and/or unimportant.
KG: I’m trying to stay in-between things. I’m inspired by what I did with UbuWeb more than anything else. Twenty years ago when I started it, I had a vague idea that the future might be truly intersectional, and it’s really happened. It makes me feel silly for, all those years, having named myself, say, a “visual artist” or a “poet.” I should’ve listened to my younger self much earlier.
Grider: How, if at all, did the political sea change in 2016 (and still ongoing) affect your ideas about the relationship between identity and cultural production?
KG: For many years, the Jew was perceived by many in American society as being white. As an assimilationist, I was happy to go with that. But the cover was blown with the rise of the alt-right. Suddenly, Jews were publicly being hated out loud again. It should be no surprise — it’s always there — but now Jews like myself, who identified as white, were no longer considered white by people at the highest positions in government. For a Jew, anti-Semitism is simply part of the air we breathe; it’s always there, but often times you don’t notice it; some days or years or eras are worse than others. This is one of those times: the air pollution is high. That caused, for me, a bit of soul-searching and repositioning, which has yet to be resolved. I’m wary and carefully watching the situation unfold, as a Jew tends to do.