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Bad Art/Bad Writing: Towards a Critical Aesthetics of Disruption

What, exactly, constitutes the “bad”? Can one consciously produce in the name of “badness,” or is badness a value judgment that comes after the fact, from an Other? How does one begin to assign aesthetic value to an object? If one is to accept the “bad” as “good,” or to find aesthetic value in badness, then when does the bad succeed and when does it fail? If, pace Beckett, we are to embrace failure as an inevitable goal, then isn’t it necessary to invent a new mode of criticism that accommodates this aesthetic reality? In historical terms, how does such a view challenge traditional conceptions of Modernism?

The first section of my thesis utilizes a comparativist approach in critically examining two prominent contemporary avant-garde tendencies in North American writing—conceptual writing and Flarf—with the concurrent evolution of “art writing” in the UK. As the North American movements in particular have articulated a rigid stance in relation to previous 20th century avant-garde movements, it will then become necessary to interrogate previous historicizing strategies of Modernism in order to propose an “other tradition,” in the words of John Ashbery, or a radical Modernism, in line with Deleuze and Guattari’s minoritizing approach to the literary canon (which, arguably, leads into the critical interdisciplinarity of writing-based art practices and 21st century poetics.) In summary, the question that needs to be asked here is: How does one frame criticality within the context of a work of art? This is the central question that “art writing” must ask.

This will lead into the second section of the thesis, three case studies of artists working in different media—all, arguasbly, under the arc of “badness”—and all of whom deal with some aspect of writing in their practice: Roth wrote voluminous poetry and made numerous books as art; Kuchar’s films, even when unscripted, are highly textual; and Stein was a writer, albeit a most unconventional one, in that much of her practice was framed in a visual arts context, rather than a traditional literary one. While I intend to trace a genealogy of badness throughout each artist’s oeuvre, I will ultimately focus my readings on one representative major work in the case of each artist: Dieter Roth’s Gartenskulptur, George Kuchar’s Weather Diaries project, and Gertrude Stein’s word portraits and short writings on visual art and artists. In order to fully grasp what is essentially a question of intentionality, my reading of the artists’ works will be supplemented by interviews and artist writings, as well as critical texts about the work. In the case of George Kuchar, my own interviews and correspondence with the artist will form an intrinsic part of my research.

Finally, I will track the evolution of Clement Greenberg’s conception of “taste” throughout his writings. As his defense of taste was often predicated on his reading of Kantian aesthetics, I will re-visit Kant’s most essential writings on the subject—“What is Enlightenment?” and The Critique of Pure Judgment—effectively reading Kant via Greenberg. (Here, secondary readings of Kant, such as recent studies by Henry Allison, will also be employed.) Whether Greenberg’s defense of taste actually stands up to Kant will, I believe, determine whether we can establish any firm ground for a definition of badness; if not, then we must consider badness as a method or tactic. I suspect that the latter is the case, and so I intend to conclude my thesis with a critical examination of the work of the late author Kathy Acker, whose explicit articulation of “bad writing” effectively blurred the lines of “critical” and “creative” texts, thus paving the way for the 21st century Modernist tendencies we find currently evolving in both North American poetics and British art writing. Here, literary critic Marjorie Perloff’s conception of a “21st century Modernism” will be invoked and explored, as well as Hal Foster’s reading of Zurich and Cologne Dada as a “mimetic exacerbation” of the Real.