Pushcart 2014: Andrew Zolot, “The Piece Need Not Be Built” from American Circus, January 2012

Is it in poetry that salvation lies? Is it language that will beat back the tides of relativistic pseudoart and reclaim the mystery of artistic shamanhood, the weaver of dreams, and the savior of men’s souls?… Were one to avoid looking at any of the art in the museum and simply read the descriptive literature – which this particular placard laughably implies would be equivalent experiences – he would sense the decay of the art in the decay of the language used to describe it. Nobody would call the vast majority of the works on the contemporary and modern floors of the Museum of Modern Art beautiful. The language used to describe art has been sterilized in the last hundred years to reference “space” and “acts” and “processes.”

From these opening lines, you might get the feeling that Zolot doesn’t much like conceptual art. But to the contrary: in the space of 1000 words (available online), an essay in which it’s unclear where irony ends and sincerity begins, in which he simultaneously ridicules and proves an idea, he’s created a damned fine piece of conceptual art – with words.

As much as I like this, I wonder if I like the article, or the idea of calling the MoMA coat check stand an exhibit (something the Dutch have already done, by the way, as you can see from the photo above), the idea of seeing art in something distinctly non-artistic. I “see” the art, very clearly, without actually seeing it but by reading about it, particularly in the “implied circularity” (it’s the first and last thing seen) and the “reversal of the implied characters of the seasons” (rich in winter, hollow in summer), but mostly, in the human ability to assign meaning to anything. We look at the stars and see stories of heroic warriors, ancient enmities and alliances; we’ve created God, the old man with the white beard, in our image; and for pete’s sake, there’s a twitter account (one I follow and dearly love) devoted to Faces In Things. Meaning – Art – created daily.

And, as much as I like this, I find it difficult to write about; my comments seem to be more scattered than usual. Thank you for bearing with me. The essay connects to a number of things for me, but all of them rather tenuously. For example: do words about art matter at all? Can words about art, make the art matter? If the artist creates the words as part of the piece, but what about those little descriptive cards? I’m very fond of the Contributor Notes found in BASS and PEN collections; unlike the Pushcart contributor notes, they contain comments from the authors, usually on the origin of the work, though they may lapse into explanation. But I acknowledge, they are not part of the work, and I’m always rather sad when (as happens on occasion) I like the contributor note better than I like the story.

One of the poems we read in ModPo was Frank O’Hara’s “Why I Am Not A Painter”; it subtly compares visual and poetic art. Instructor Al Filreis had this summary:

“This is a poem about a painting that behaves like a poem, and a poem that behaves like a painting. This is a poem that shows how you can have a meta-painting in a poem, and a meta-poem in a poem, and it’s also a poem about how only a poem can be a meta-meta poem by having a meta-painting in it and a meta-poem in it. A painting can go to the first meta-level, but a poem can compare two meta processes and leave them both there and never erase one or the other.”

~~Dr. Filreis, ModPo 2013

That sounds like gobbledygook when isolated, but in the context of the class and the poem and the discussion, and delivered with Al’s usual down-to-earth style, it made perfect sense (I told you, I’m having trouble writing about this, just read on, ok?). I’m not sure I agree that painting is more limited in its levels-of-meta – I suspect visual art is just as capable as verbal art of this kind of multi-levelled meaning – but until I know enough about art and can point to something and say, “Here, this does it,” I’ll have to merely doubt. Given my vague and not-even-elementary connection to art, that could take a while.

I do believe that words about art can create art. Without this essay, a coat check is just a coat check; with this essay, it’s a world of meaning; I’ll pay far closer attention to the next coat check I encounter.

Zolot then turns it all on its head with his closing paragraph:

Unlike the rest of the pieces and installations at the MoMA, Coat Check is shrouded in silence: there are no placards, no discussions about its merits, no docent on hand to wax on the Board’s intentions or artistic inspirations. It is in this understatement that Coat Check comes out as the real winner at the museum. In this era where art is described by words that mean nothing, better to shut up and simply be something.

Except that… I just said, without this essay, a coat check is just a coat check, so these words… wait…

See why I’m having trouble talking about this? It’s, literally, too amazing for words. Either that, or I’m overcomplicating everything again. Let’s go back to basics: the power of words to transform our perception of a physical thing from practical necessity to art.

Just the other day, in yet another poetry MOOC “(Every Atom“, offered by the University of Iowa) I discovered that Whitman’s inspiration for his lovely “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry at the age of 12 while using the boat in the course of his law messenger duties: “And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence, are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose…. Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt…” Poetry lovers gather at the site today, annually, to read his poem. Maybe it was those trips that turned him into a poet; the words transformed a humble ferry into art.

What in your life could be transformed into art by words?

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One response to “Pushcart 2014: Andrew Zolot, “The Piece Need Not Be Built” from American Circus, January 2012

  1. Pingback: Pushcart 2014: The End | A Just Recompense

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