An extract from Travis Jeppesen's forthcoming book, The Suiciders
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Georg Baselitz and his notion of “bad painting.” How this might correspond to writing, “bad writing.” To write badly on purpose. There is not much of a history to this anti-tradition in literature. Kathy Acker was one of the few writers who openly did it. Nowadays there’s the Flarfists and some of the conceptual poets, but the former seem to be doing it as a joke, while the latter tend to be boring and academic — no one actually reads it, no one cares. I’m not trying to be rude here – they openly admit that they don’t want really want their work to be read. It is part of their program: Just the manifestos, please.
Conceptual poetry suffers from the disease of being merely interesting. (Nevermind the fact that all poetry, from the very beginning up to the present, is essentially a conceptual deployment of language – a fact that was brought up by an audience member at a recent Conceptual Poetics conference in Berlin, to which these “conceptualists” didn’t have a response, having obviously never considered it.)
Even if the people doing Flarf take it seriously, the fact that they’ve given it a name has essentially ruined it. Group identity = institutionalization.
Another “bad writing” milestone — Finnegans Wake.
Joyce never encouraged others to follow in his path. He was no Marinetti; he didn’t need a cult of personality to validate his work.
Perhaps nearly everything Gertrude Stein ever wrote could be classed under “bad writing.” With Stein, perhaps we can even suggest a Modernism that is truly Other, that has never really been subsumed into the canon, and is thus commonly ignored – a radical Modernism that might take as its motto, “Make it bad,” rather than “Make it new.” She attained heights of unreadability, the implications of which we are still grappling with today. But I don’t think that was really her intention.
In order to arrive at a definition of what these artists and writers are doing, we have to grapple with the question of intentionality.
Just as there are supposedly “eternal values” in art, there are also eternal vulgarities that permeate our civilization. Certain artists take the initiative of choosing to set a bad example. To do so is to take a moral stance, to put forth a system of values that runs counter to dominant social values. To affirm what is otherwise, at best, negotiable. The painting above, The Big Night Down the Drain, scandalized the German art world when it was first exhibited in 1963. Painting an ugly dwarf with a huge phallus is bad taste enough; the fact that it was so crudely painted made it even worse. Style and content competing in the ultimate gross-out. Baselitz could have alleviated the strain of the controversy by pointing to others who have made similar gestures, by giving it a name, by forming a group identity. But, like Stein, like Joyce, he stood resolutely alone. (Which is not to say that others didn’t assign his work to the archives of German Expressionism or international Neo-Expressionism; but as far as I know, Baselitz himself has never admitted to being a card-carrying member of any movement or genre.)
However hesitant we might be to admit it, the vast majority of art and literature is executed in slavish conformity to societal norms. When Philip Roth sets out to write a novel, he is consciously writing towards a tradition; when Baselitz makes a painting, he is also working towards tradition, but it is a tradition of being anti-tradition.
John Ashbery once gave a lecture at the Yale School of Art on the historical avant-garde in which he asked why Jackson Pollock is considered to be a great artist while Norman Rockwell is considered, essentially, a kitsch illustrator. In asking this question, Ashbery arrived at the best definition of art I’ve heard to date. Pollock is a great artist because, no matter how much praise was eventually heaped on him in his lifetime and posthumously, there is something fundamentally unacceptable about his work. Ashbery even goes so far as to suggest to his audience of young artists, in the event that their work is received in the light of universal praise and acclaim, that they might not ask themselves whether there then might be something wrong with their work.
Even rarer is the radical like Baselitz, who makes wrongness the motivating factor behind the work.
The Suiciders is born out of failure. It started out simply enough – an ultra-realistic account of teen serial killers on a road trip. I wrote it and re-wrote it and re-wrote it again countless times, and I could never manage to get it right. There was always something wrong. It felt like I was trying too hard – and it read that way, too. Until I asked myself one day, what if I were to not try at all?
What does it mean to set out to write the ultimate “bad novel”? Not just bad as in subject matter, but method — grammar, syntax, narrative — not to intentionally be wrong, but to not care about the possibility of getting it all wrong. Everything you are told not to do in writing. Critics would be forced to come up with a new language to praise or reject it — neither an enviable nor a pitiable task. But as a project, perhaps it represents one way forward — or at least a way of correcting certain age-old prejudices.
At the same time, I have to admit that this isn’t really what I’m doing. Even when I’m being anti-form, I’m still too much of a goddamn formalist. If you read the manuscript, there’s too much language there, too much structured noise, to convince any thinking person that all I’m doing is merely flinging words upon a page. The key is the language – the materiality of the structure itself. Finally, with this novel, I am allowing myself to do what I’ve done with my previous novels – which is to re-invent the Novel. This is a task that every novelist should set out to do, each time she sits down to write. But so few do these days. They want to be Philip Roth, a pillar of the establishment, even though so many claim (fashionably) to be against that establishment. In my case, or the case of The Suiciders, I allow the language to play an equal, perhaps even dominant role in regards to all the other components that have traditionally formed the Novel. The “characters” are not, in fact, characters. They are proper nouns. Proper nouns that are allowed to melt into, become, deflate other, less proper nouns. Language = character = plot, etc. In releasing language from its submissive servitude to meaning (meaning as it is traditionally constituted in the Novel), new meanings emerge, new linguistic structures, new narratives, new modes of perception, new possibilities of being.
I’m still naïve enough to believe in the figure of the artist-revolutionary, but this naiveté is balanced with the realization that revolutions caused by art are seldom acknowledged at their inception by the wider cultural milieu, and that the changes they impel thus occur at a rate comparable to the shift in tectonic plates beneath the earth’s surface.
This is a very different way of creating revolution, one that necessarily avoids politics, avoids collectivity, and celebrates the power of the individual consciousness while simultaneously rebuking both the traditional bourgeois conception of the alienated urban individual and the quasi-fascistic cult of personality that continues to be celebrated wherever art is publicized. Where the life of the mind is concerned, totalitarianism has already triumphed, and its benefactor has been American-style democracy. This is reflected widely in the “literature” that is most praised and consumed in our culture, a literature that can no longer be considered an art. Enough cynicism, enough irony-coated “minimalism,” enough anti-intellectual hipster posturing. Up with the anarchy of the signifier, with the creation of new myths, with momentary lapses of cognition, with an embrace of psychoses, with an outpouring of unmitigated sexuality – in short, with the freedom that we only find in the realm of the imaginary.
The reason why I’m so terrible, why I’m so itchy, is because I know a freedom that very few will ever manage to experience. I can’t stop moving around, I can’t put an end to these constant gesticulations, not because I am uncomfortable in my own skin, but because I know how to leave it when I need to. Unlike my American male peers, I don’t need to castrate myself in order to resolve some Cartesian neurosis; for me, the cerebral and the sexual have always been embedded in a reflexivity that is unable to recognize that last and.
If and when I manage to finish it, The Suiciders will stand alone as a work written against the last ten years of the Zeitgeist. I will never write another book like it, and I don’t want or expect others to follow in my path. Let there be a new absorption; one that is defined by disruption.