Language’s various forms have captured the attention of a swathe of artists of late, as well as those who make their business around them. See (or read) the works that fill the white walls of our exhibition spaces, and are described in the white pages (both analogue and digital) of our stuttering, inarticulate press releases: the essay-film (Moyra Davey), the literary voice-over (Ed Atkins), the lecture-performance (Hito Steyerl), the artist’s book (Heike-Karin Föll), the paintings on book covers (Paul Chan), the exhibitions inspired by literature, or its idea, or the idea of its idea. See (or read), the works on a4 paper that look very much like poems, or an artist’s idea of them (fragments, metaphors, refrains, line-breaks). See these poems laid in vitrines, framed on walls, placed in stacks on the floor (Sue Tompkins). Read the poems streaming down the sides of white cubes in a scrawled, stylized hand (Karl Holmqvist). See recent artist monographs: in between the critical essays and reproductions, read the poems (Ida Ekblad, Oscar Tuazon). Attend the opening-night performances; hear how often they are now called ‘readings’. See the issue of frieze you read now, with its focus on ‘Artists’ Poetry’. What is that, exactly? I have no idea. But as a poet who works in the field of visual arts, a writer who works daily in a world of appearances, I am interested. ‘Poets’ Art’: you would never say that. Well, maybe you could of William Blake. Someone as antique, witty and sincere as him.
Anyway, poetry: what’s going on? Like capitalism, contemporary art is hungry and omnivorous; it devours and assimilates everything. If the art world has a bright, muscular market, much of what it has absorbed – independent film, theatre, dance, publishing, philosophy – does not. It is philosophy’s firm, sometimes fallible, hold on the contemporary art world that reminds me most of artists’ recent adoption of the poetic party line. Also of some observations by Hannah Arendt: ‘[Rudolf] Carnap’s statement that metaphysics should be regarded as poetry certainly goes counter to the claims usually made by metaphysicians; but these […] may be based on an underestimation of poetry,’ writes Arendt in The Life of the Mind (1978). Martin Heidegger, she notes, said that philosophy and poetry ‘sprang from the same source’: thinking. And ‘Aristotle, whom so far no one has accused of writing “mere” poetry, was of the same opinion: poetry and philosophy somehow belong together.’
Until lately in the art world, the idea that poetry is equal to philosophy would be trashed, oh, immediately. Despite poetry’s present popularity, that probably remains the case. In its familiar incarnation in contemporary art – as criticism – language is often devalued. But this placement of the world of appearances and objects above that of language is not new. As Arendt notes: ‘Nothing we see or hear or touch’ – art, for example – ‘can be expressed in words that equal what is given to the senses. [Georg] Hegel was right when he pointed out that “the This of sense […] cannot be reached by language.”’ And yet: ‘Was it not precisely the discovery of a discrepancy between words, the medium in which we think, and the world of appearances, the medium in which we live, that led to philosophy and metaphysics in the first place?’ Arendt asks. ‘It seems only natural that the former will discriminate against appearances and the latter against thought.’ It’s a discrimination we’re all familiar with. But why am I talking about discrimination when I should be celebrating poetry’s fashionable return? Perhaps because the gap between language and appearance (so much dark, evocative water) makes their intersection or parallel movement – one trying to ‘make sense’ (or something else) of the other – so compelling. Art criticism begins when a writer tries to transform one medium into another.
‘We are what men always have been – thinking beings,’ Arendt writes. ‘By this I mean no more than that men have an inclination, perhaps a need, to think beyond the limitations of knowledge, to do more with this ability than use it as an instrument for knowing and doing.’ Arendt’s measured observation ‘touches a nerve in me’, to reach out to (or into) the body and its senses for my metaphor, as we writers often do. Poetry embodies the need to use language in a way that is not useful, in the conventional sense. W.H. Auden’s ubiquitous maxim ‘poetry makes nothing happen’, is followed by the less-often quoted lines: ‘it survives / In the valley of its making where executives / Would never want to tamper’.
Poetry is full of gestures, a favourite word of artists – towards itself and language, towards the world and others – and of unknowingness, often embodied by the fragment, the line-break or the caesura that favours sound over sense. Perhaps artists are tired of use value. Perhaps poetry, with its loose ties to the contemplatives and metaphysicians that Arendt names, seems like a strange, unknowable, useless (in the best sense) place of respite. Not passive but parallel. Or perhaps, conversely, art’s turn towards poetry is about poetry anxiously attempting to join the market. Maybe it is about the new linguistic currency of the internet: advertorial, adolescent, content-driven, anxiety-ridden, always appeasing, liking, performing, sharing, driving the shares up. Maybe it is about trying to learn this language – this new digital poetics – to better compete in that market, or to make something of no (or better) use within it. Or perhaps it is about both of these tendencies pressing against each other, coolly, ever compellingly: the old longevity of contemplation, the new compression of expression. Perhaps it is because words are increasingly not just the medium in which we think, per Arendt, but in which we live. Perhaps words are the new images. To that end, perhaps artists’ movement towards and into language is simply about the fact that we might all write more than ever before. Why not do it better? Fail better, etc.
First published in Issue 164