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The Medium Means Nothing

- art cannot be reduced to the status of a means in the service of a cause which transcends it, even if this cause were the most deserving, the most exalting; the artist puts nothing above his work, and he soon comes to realize that he can create only for nothing -

I want to remove the experience from the work of art. (Alain Robbe-Grillet)

I want to put art back into the service of the mind.

In his landmark book, The Structure of Art, Jack Burnham argues that "esthetic doctrines once proclaimed that art was beauty, the search after truth, or significant form; what passes for esthetics today - that lingering element which makes art art - is no more helpful" (7).

Western art is a waste-land of critical terms and signifiers - beauty - truth - significant form - first intensity. Gertrude Stein observes that nothing changes from generation to generation, except the thing seen - the composition. Marcel Duchamp's work demonstrates that art is art - the Large Glass to the pictures of Giotto. Art stays the same - just look at the composition; composition is how it is composed.

In "Art Degree Zero," Burnham comments: "Unavoidably, all languages and other sign systems preclude metaphysical premises. Roland Barthes repeatedly asserts that signs remain open and by necessity unverifiable. So it seems that every social institution, from religion to traffic regulations, operates as a communication mode with no more authority than the rules of speech. What gives such institutions their power over our lives is their consistency. Whatever is done within a semiotic system is always structurally consistent with what has gone before. The pattern of concepts is recognizable because it proceeds with reference to its own past. It is this repetition abetted by a proscribed order that defines man's connection to and separation from nature" (176). Here we ought to wonder about an iconoclast's relation to the past, and consider, as well, the relationship between a poet's irreverence and absence into minimalism, because it is clear that the minimalist impulse is an important part of the structure of contemporary art.

I will not make any more boring art.

I intend to explore Kenneth Goldsmith's conceptual art following closely the metaphysics of its poetic and context; Goldsmith is a derivative writer and the context for his work ought to be understood. There is a context for Goldsmith's boredom; this context includes Gertrude Stein and Marcel Duchamp. They are very boring writers. They are also the two single-most important creators of modern and post-modern art. I take Goldsmith's "being boring" as a refusal to be orthodox. There is a semiotic challenge. Writing and art subverted or even reduced to boredom (again there is a minimalist impulse here - I'll return to this) is information, and information next to Art is nothing. "Nothing" is not so easily achieved. As I am trying to show, there is a philosophical, certainly an antagonistic, tradition that goes along with it. Art deconstructed by boring art (information?) - a version of the high art / low art binary - is another way of practicing Duchamp's aesthetics of indifference. Indifference transcends taste; to transcend taste is to undermine the very structure of Western art, writing and critical thought. Goldsmith's work achieves this better than anyone else's to date. He furthers the tradition of the re-told, recycled , re-made - ready-made - repackaged, repeated - mundane.

Being is in repeating.

Repetition fascinated Gertrude Stein, because it was at once a physiological and cognitive act.

Movement creates (constructs) mind. Marcel Duchamp sought to put art back into the service of the mind, to carry the mind of the reader towards other regions more verbal. Reality and experience are reconceptualized in terms of structure and idea; structure and idea subvert standards of taste. Jack Burnham offers the best definition of indifference as a cognitive act:

      The Platonic and Christian desire [want] to find moral justification for human acts is alien to strict Gnosticism. In this light we might interpret Duchamp's legendary indifference. The concepts of superior quality and moral preference imply alternatives. But for the Gnostic, "looking toward God" [object - ready-made] means assuming the rigorous impartiality of the Supreme Deity, rather than of obligations, choices, and temptations that constantly try the virtue of a normally religious person. ("The Purposes of the Ready-mades," 72)

I don't want to suggest that Duchamp's gnostic indifference is the same as Goldsmith's, because Goldsmith is not gnostic. Duchamp's indifference, however, can be a reference point for understanding Goldsmith's conceptual poetics. Indifference is how we can perceive the ephemeral - the de-materialization of the work of art - art as information - art about art - conceptual art. Here is Gertrude Stein:

      I then began again to think about the bottom nature in people, I began to get enormously interested in hearing how everybody said the same thing over and over again until finally if you listened with great intensity you could hear it rise and fall and tell all that there was inside them, not so much by the actual words they said or the thoughts they had but the movement of their thoughts and words endlessly the same and endlessly different. ("The Gradual Making of The Making of Americans" in Selected Writings, 243)

From Fidget: "Three. Four. Five. Step. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Step. Step. Eyes scan. Left hand pulls. Stop. Waits. Breathes. Again" (50). Indifference and insistence are pathways to Mind - entity in that sense - which Stein defines as a state of unknowing and pure creation; this is also indifference. Duchamp asserts that "[in] the creative act, the artist goes from intention to realization through a chain of totally subjective reactions. His struggle toward the realization is a series of efforts, pains, satisfactions, refusals, decisions, which also cannot and must not be fully self-conscious, at least on the esthetic plane" (139).

A work like Fidget achieves this kind of sameness in difference. Goldsmith's actions - his practices - denote a similar kind of attention and concentration - indifference - pure creation and being - the exchange of information from one reader perceiver to another. "I do not transcribe, I construct." (Alain Robbe-Grillet) "Grasp. Step. Bend" (Fidget).

Indifference requires labour. One comes to it by naming things that embody the idea of it - one comes to it through cognition (insistence) and recognition (repetition) - being is in repeating (Stein). That is for the making of objects part - thinking them into being - art as artifice in that sense. There's more to it, and Duchamp's own actions demonstrate this poetic. Ready-mades were either chosen and numbered and dated and signed in limited editions; or else they were slightly altered - assisted. He was insistent on making potential readers / perceivers attentive to this, as well. This is achieved in Goldsmith's work or rather project by thwarting reader expectation. At its extreme, Goldsmith's work is unreadable. Here Idea transcends praxis.

Joseph Kosuth, in "Art After Philosophy," writes: "a work of art is a kind of proposition presented within the context of art as a comment on art . . . . 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" (Kosuth, 82-83).

In opening the text the reader enters into an architectural space - almost. Word as object is radically displaced - metonymic - literal; the de-materialized trace of the mark. This process and experience is not unlike the incredible minimalist poems of Rae Armantrout (see Cummings and Peters for further discussion). Goldsmith's writing is closer to minimalist sculpture - a sculpture and form - like the conceptual works of Vito Acconci (now an architect) - Carl Andre - Don Judd and Joseph Kosuth - that comes out of writing and performance. These are the writers that Kenneth Goldsmith's texts read. Head Citations is set up like the Tractatus. It reads in part like Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons - an inventory - a list. Each citation has the clarity of an annotation. Most read like parodies; others read / look like parables. Others still read like analytical propositions. Goldsmith is very much a derivative writer; his work is testament to the insight that art comes from other art. This is great minimalist work, because the object per se is absent. Each text (book?) is its own information room (Kosuth) -

Metonymy and Self-Reference: Art as Idea as Idea

Repetition also undermines metaphor - taste - aesthetic taste motivated by convention. Duchamp's work is intrinsically metonymic - vigorously anti-metaphorical - literal in that sense; so is Stein's:


      A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading.

This example is not unlike Joseph Kosuth's CLEAR / SQUARE / GLASS / LEANING - four sheets of glass - leaning - literally. Kosuth's intent is to construct a work void of composition. That is like nothing. Or theatre devoid of literature: "Pull. Sit. Cross. Bring. Right. Chew. Swallow. Repeat. Dance. Reach. Push. Chew. Pick. Scratch. Stretch. Rub. Click. Peck. Hit" (Fidget, 62). "Clear. Square. Glass. Leaning."

Meaning is spatial as well as temporal: "One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten. Eleven. Twelve. Thirteen. Fourteen. Fifteen. Sixteen. Seventeen. Eighteen. Nineteen. Twenty steps" (Fidget, 54). Stein presents several views of the same object - "A CARAFE" - "THAT IS A BLIND GLASS" - "A kind in glass" - kin - a "cousin" (in relation to) a spectacle - "a single hurt color" - A carafe is "all this" - "and an arrangement in a system to pointing." Self-reference. Stein's early Cubist writing foreshadows Goldsmith's writing as concept - as performance.

Each stop enacts a death. And what is laid to rest is the formal lyric. Clear. Square. Glass. Leaning. But as Gertrude Stein observes stopping has a lot to do with going on. By this Stein means that self-reference is without end - it is infinite within a finite structure; metaphors come and go, but relations are permanent.

Alain Robbe-Grillet: "Not only do they claim no other reality than that of the reading, or of the performance, but further they always seem to be in a process of contesting, of jeopardizing themselves in proportion as they create themselves. Here space destroys time, and time sabotages space. Description makes no headway, contradicts itself, turns in circles. Moment denies continuity" (155).

Conceptual art is the presentation of this decay. "Expectations of linearity are also mocked. He thinks he is proceeding in an orderly way and laughs at himself for thinking so." That is Rae Armantrout commenting on Bob Perelman's a.k.a. It applies to Goldsmith's writing, too. And this: Kenneth Goldsmith "is a modern metaphysical poet. Every sentence in [Fidget - Day] is a sort of critique of reason. Each interrogates the relation between mind and things" (259, 261). Narrative and non-narrative - each are fictions. There are holes in every story. Each hole is an event. Moment denies moment -

Gertrude Stein:

    A narrative.

    Be used.

    Relatively refused.



    To refuse.

    Very nearly right.

    Very nearly.


    It will be all of it a day.

    They never say.


    A day.

    Having escaped it.

    Stopping makes a narrative not stopping but stopping.

    ("In Narrative," 284-285)

Context and disguise give metonymy its power of ambivalence and multiplicity or open-endedness, which is experienced simultaneously as a gestalt - [a] same-ness - indifference - inclusive - accepting - the part taken for the whole [disguised as whole, in part]. "It is in the word-to-word connexion," Lacan comments, "that metonymy is based" (88-89, my emphasis) - a writing against metaphor - a writing degree zero or the direct presentation of the event. In Fidget "connexions" are broken and re-made at the same time. Kaja Silverman, in The Subject of Semiotics, points out that "metonymy exploits relationships of contiguity [displacement] between things, not words: between a thing and its attributes, its environment and its adjuncts" (111). In Fidget, moreover, movement deconstructs event; it abolishes it. In other words, movement is event; in this respect, Fidget is like d.a. levy's ground-breaking experiments in destructive writing. The formal lyric reaches ground zero; lyric is gesture. There's no where else to go -

Information as Form: Consciousness a means to an end

Aesthetic is the same thing as anesthetic, something to put you to sleep. (Les Levine)

Fidget is a work that can be compared with Robert Morris's "Box with the Sound of its Own Making." Fidget documents the movement of a body in space.

Like Andre's brick works or Judd's aluminum boxes - one right after the other - all exact - each part its own gestalt - self-referential to itself and to the whole - self-referential of art and art history as well - Goldsmith places event after event, negating its narrative - flattening it out. Literally. Reading visualizes the idea. The idea naturalizes cultural and received patterns and conventions of reading. Fidget is ready-made.

Goldsmith doesn't distinguish between perception and experience. His closest contemporary is the conceptual artist Les Levine. Like Levine, Goldsmith "is making art from residual effects of avant-garde art, but with several modifications" (Burnham, 146). In one sense, works like Day, The Weather and No. 111 2.7.93-10.20.96 are "a somewhat conventional elaboration" of minimal and conceptual art. The ideological/aesthetic polemics behind such works, however, imply that most contemporary writing is alliterative listing - dull projective verse - academic. Parody becomes unreadable. Like Levine, Goldsmith realizes that "parody is becoming more and more of an impossibility because the art system at this stage is merely a series of one-liners and put-ons of its original self" - Head Citations. And like Levine, Goldsmith "no doubt realizes this, so the basic thrust of many of his art works concerns self-cognizance, or the response of people to themselves in humanly probing situations" (8-9). Fidget: "Tongue probes back of front teeth. Tongue chafes against sharpness of front tooth [insistence as emphasis - objecthood and bottom nature - I as object] Tongue moves to gums. Runs over crevice between two front teeth. Relaxes into slumped tongue. Probes bump on front tooth. Reaches up and grasps" (50). Goldsmith's metonymic experiments - his respatialization of language and the site of interaction and engagement - announce once and for all the death of art. But who is listening? Page as site; installation - text. Les Levine: "What I'm trying to point out is that art is a locked-in system at this stage, so much so that it doesn't need to be done because all locked-in systems prechoice themselves. From now on you don't have to make art because art will make itself" (cited in Burnham, "LES LEVINE," 147). Soliloquy into Day - work that successfully removes the experience from the work of art at last.

Works Cited

Armantrout, Rae. "Bob Perelman, a.k.a." The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book. Eds. Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985. 259-261.

Burnham, Jack. "Art Degree Zero." The Structure of Art. New York: George Braziller, 1973. 176-182.

Duchamp, Marcel. "The Creative Act." Salt Seller: The Writings of Marcel Duchamp (Marchand Du Sel). Eds. Michel Sanouillet and Elmer Peterson. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973. 138-140.

---. "Les Levine in Retrofocus." LES LEVINE. The Vancouver Art Gallery: Intermedia, 1974. 5-9.

---. "LES LEVINE: SYSTEMS BURN-OFF X RESIDUAL SOFTWARE (1969). The Structure of Art. New York: George Braziller, 1973. 146-147.

---. "The Purposes of the Ready-mades." Great Western Salt Works. New York. George Braziller, 1974. 71-89.

---. "The Search for a Structure." The Structure of Art. New York. George Braziller, 1973. 7-31.

Cummings, Kasy and Carl Peters. "Minimalism & Poetic Silence." Witz: A Journal of Contemporary Poetics (Spring) 1997: 22-31.

Frenkel, Vera. "Benign Ignorance." artscanada. May/June (1977): 27-30.

Goldsmith, Kenneth. "Exchanging e-mail with Kenneth Goldsmith." 6799. New York: zingmagazine, 2000. i-x.

---. Fidget. Toronto; Coach House Books, 2000.

Lacan, Jacques. "The Insistence of the Letter in the Unconscious." Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader. Ed. David Lodge. New York: Longman and New York, 1988. 79-106.

levy, d.a. The Tibetan Stroboscope. Cleveland: Ayizan Press, 1968.

Robbe-Grillet, Alain. "Time and Description In Fiction Today." For A New Novel: Essays on Fiction. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Grove Press, 1965. 143-156.

Silverman, Kaja. The Subject of Semiotics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Stein, Gertrude. "Regular Regularly In Narrative." How To Write. Los Angeles: Sun and Moon, 1995. 229-290.

---. Tender Buttons. Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein. New York: Vintage Books, 1972. 459-509.

---. "The Gradual Making of the Making of Americans." Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein. New York: Vintage Books, 1972. 239-258.

Swidzinski, Jan. Quotations on Contextual Art. New York: Idea Books, 1988.

Kenneth Goldsmith and Conceptual Poetics
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