The question “Is it art?” has, beyond its usual employment by philistines, a more serious philosophical consideration behind it. Usually this question is posed in the context of an apparently unmodified, “ordinary object” assuming the stage of an “artwork.” Think of Duchamp’s readymades, or Warhol. Why, exactly, does this bother us? Is it because these ordinary objects are invading a space more an altar than a stage, a pedestal on which to place only a special selection of objects that fit one definition of the sublime? How narrow is this definition, or how wide? Is this distinction—art, life—so important that we refuse to see “ordinary objects” as mimetic of ideals, just as art is supposedly mimetic of ordinary objects? This is mostly sociological speculation on my part, but I do think there is anecdotal evidence for claiming that basic divide: between asking the question “Is it art?” in the antagonistic sense of patrolling an arbitrary dogma of what art “is,” and asking it the sense of earnestly trying to decode what, if anything, separates works of art decisively from the rest of the world. In the former case, objects and artworks that confuse this divide are more problems to be weeded out than appreciated—and this “arbitrary sense” is most often inherited, and probably more related to subject matter than to conscious aesthetic decision. But is there any hope for answering the question in the latter sense, despite its appeal?
Posed as such, this question doesn’t promise any particularly clear answers. But it is possible, as some of the aforementioned artists have done, to expand the range of the question beyond that which makes it into museums (by slipping nefariously past some dozing curator, perhaps) and that which inhabits the daily world: newspapers, magazines, billboards, signs, images, photographs, speech, instruction—everything utilitarian or, for some other reason, inartistic.
The work of the late found artist Bern Porter is preoccupied with a related mission: to create an aesthetic experience out of magnifying the inescapable, what is already before our eyes, and subjecting it to the sort of rigor that designated “artworks” enjoy. Porter might not have agreed with my classification of media objects, like advertising copy, as expressly “inartistic”; he might say, instead, that they were fashioned thus but did not start out that way, that they were “un-art-ified,” or deprived of the type of scrutiny heaped upon objects deemed to have aesthetic value. These objects, then, were made inartistic by the social circumstances of their viewing. Like white noise, they became present but non-present, tangible but unable to be located. Because of the duality of their existences as objects (confronted, but rarely examined), the force they exert is oblique, harder to pin down but powerful nonetheless—and all the more dangerous because of this. Porter’s career entailed his work as a publisher (participating himself in the means of production that his work critiques) as well as a found artist; he was the first U.S. publisher of Henry Miller, and also published Pablo Picasso, Gary Snyder, Kenneth Patchen, Kenneth Rexroth, and Anaïs Nin through Bern Porter Books, his eponymous imprint. But despite his stature as a publisher and his doubtlessly influential work in the industry, his most salient critiques of the “state of the art” come from his corpus as sometimes-found-artist, sometimes-poet, and always-investigator of things both common and unseeable (unseeable, often, due to their commonality).
“Found implies lost,” writes Mark Melnicove about Porter, pondering the categories under which the artist’s life and work will be subsumed. Among them, he counts the following: found poet, visual poet, mail artist, book artist, concrete poet, and pop artist. According to Melnicove, Porter’s “singular achievement,” however—“the one he delved into deeper and with more consistency than his contemporaries”—was his work as a found poet. “As such,” Melnicove goes on to say, “he is arguably the most significant found poet of the 20th century, if not all time.” But why? Thumbing through the Nightboat Books edition of Bern Porter’s Found Poems—a beautiful re-rendering of works that appeared at least partially in a 1972 edition from Something Else Press—there’s an initial sense of triviality, of the founds included being not much more than citations or reproductions of existent, an inherently uninteresting, objects in the world. But this is a consequence of commercial engagement with both the visual and textual (inasmuch as they are distinct) aspects of the work prior to its appearance in a space, in this case a book, reserved exclusively for the presentation of that privileged quantity known as “art.” Like mimes that make their points by subtle, and not cartoonish, mimicry, these pieces pull out the nails holding up the assumption that a) these objects are important functionally but unworthy of further scrutiny (this is the mask they wear to hide some of the work they do), and b) these objects have neutral values (they don’t, and most often these values are politically malevolent).
The critical conversation about “found art” usually privileges works that very explicitly alter, in one way or another, the objects themselves that have been found. This focus places emphasis on the physicality of the object more than on the venue of its (re-)presentation. Tree of Codes, Jonathan Safran Foer’s cutout of Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles, is one example; so is Tom Phillip’s A Humument, which I’ve written about extensively on this blog. But Porter’s work is not so clearly dependent on alteration for its prominence, i.e. it doesn’t draw the whole of its energy from a comparison of how the alteration differs from the original. Instead, the value of his work comes from how the object’s nature and perceived function behave in a new context: the unprotected arena of the blank page. The blank page is an autopsy table, devoid of the cocooning that cushions these media objects and prevents their out-of-context interrogation. Porter’s founds, then, aren’t modifications in the sense of modifications done to the object per se, but are modifications in the sense that performing Hamlet in a junkyard would be a modification, or hanging up a picture of a soup can in an art gallery. Said Warhol in his 1975 collection of quotes titled The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: “An artist is somebody who produces things that people don’t need to have but that he, for some reason, thinks it would be a good idea to give them.” Porter’s work gives us again—“finds” for us—the composites of the everyday and draws them in sharper contrast to their natural environment, which is the self-disguised noise and clutter of industry.
He doesn’t go so far as to obliterate their natural environment, as Warhol might. “Empty space is never-wasted space,” Warhol says in the same collection. “Wasted space is any space that has art in it.” Porter, on the other hand, seems to affirm the necessity of art to exist as objects, as material. He seems to want to assert that they are material, and not ineffable things that invade our life but leave us no recourse, by excerpting them from the world and capturing them in a book as an entomologist might a specimen.
What specimens has Porter gathered, and what do those specimens say? On the level of materiality, Porter sometimes manages to exhume life from the utilitarian corpse of punctuation; the covers of the 2011 edition display a smorgasbord of brackets in various styles, sizes, and shapes, along with the word “BRACES.” These black curves most immediately recall mustaches, waves, and birds, but what’s most central is that they invite any meaning: rather than demarcation, which is the supposed business of the bracket (or its less crumpled cousin, the parenthesis), suddenly these rote fixtures become carries of meaning—and assigned, projected meaning at that! This effect, produced by depriving the object of its conventional context, is just one of many Porter achieves. In another piece, the word “COMING” hovers over a list of dates. Just what are we to make of this? The efficacy of the announcement is obliterated by Porter’s exclusion of foundational bits of information, namely what’s coming and why it might come. Instead, we have these archaeological remnants of cultural immediacy: an imperative to pay attention though we know not what for. Here, as in many other places, Porter proves the precariousness of so much that seems gargantuan and permanent in modern life, i.e. the setting of dates, the routinization of daily life, and even (or, I should say, especially) Benjamin’s insistence on production as forever altering semantics as well as aesthetics. Like other talented language-grinders, Porter’s pieces leave us with the raw materials, vulnerable as they were before they were cloaked in propaganda. Sometimes these materials still function, though differently, and sometimes we can appreciate their appearance.
Other times Porter’s projects presuppose this material separation but don’t seem solely interested in it, moving past it to puncture the membrane of semantics. Many of these projects poke fun (inasmuch as this can be done “seriously”) at authoritative language. A stylized “if…” precedes the microscopic font of “you want to be sure you” in one piece, as if the enormousness of uncertainty disarms any piece of wisdom that might follow. “The Yes / and the If,” another piece reads—an unmistakable comparison of confidence and with the hypothetical as if each were some mythological being, the proper noun-ing of an exclamation and a conjunction. Yet another piece features the words “5 critical questions” in bolded font, before showcasing a mutilated list of bullet points:
- How fast can
- What’s the
- Are you
- Have you fully
- How much of the
These fragments of critical discourse become, in Porter’s hands, either pseudo-critical discourse or a new discourse all their own—returning us to the original question of “Is it art?” Are these bullet points samples of failed empirical inquiry, or are they bits of text no longer chained to the laws of such inquiry? It’s telling, maybe, that Porter includes a list of gram measurements titled “supplementation” on the bottom of the page below the list—lending both interruptions of the white space of the page an aura of officialdom. (And also telling that he inserts, or preserves, white space between the first and second questions, as well as the penultimate and the last ones.) But this is a fractured, injured aura, unable to hold any ground and unable to say exactly what it means. It is as if Porter, instead of being the tool by which this perceived damage is perpetuated, is instead uncovering structural flaws that have always been there, concealed by the conditions of the text’s usual presentation (i.e. in “official discourse”): “saying what it means” having always been a farce and a pipe dream. Another list, titled “Date Method,” has Porter separating occasion and instrument—but when, and with what apparatus and purpose, we’re allowed no idea. At another point, “the preliminary report / said” appears over a list of advertisements. But so does a recipe for lamb curry, translations of German phrases, product guarantees, and the dioramas of unknown apparatuses. What these seemingly unrelated quantities have in common is not merely their co-existence in the world, but their subjugation to the governance of Porter’s page. What severs their umbilical cords from their original habitat is Porter’s regulation: his purposeful, controlled, and even didactic juxtaposition. These objects, which were given free range into our senses and our conscious lives by the media, are no longer permitted to range freely. Porter does not deny their existences or render them trivial, but insists on their examination.
Porter’s throttling of media semantics doesn’t rely on text alone for its facilitation. Just as Porter so often forces us to consider the white space of the page—that space which, in its being inhabited by advertisements, is obliterated by them—as a stand-in for silence, clarity, or the lack of an interruption, so does he prompt a more fundamental consideration of color and placement. Numerous pages in Found Poems are tiled with what appear to be cut-out black squares arranged at random across the page. Without text to go by, there’s no obvious distinction as to what came first: were the squares cut out and imposed on the page, or are we, via Porter, seeing through the page to something beyond it? Whatever the case, our attention is drawn to these squares, which appear to “mean” in the sense of a sentence or an advertisement, but always fall short of meaning. Like I mentioned before with regard to the bullet points, it seems that Porter wants to demonstrate how little sense these objects make outside of their protective, climate-controlled terrariums. And does it make any difference, really, if their authoritative failure is inherent, or if it can be brought about by the exclusion of only a few words in a bunch? It is possible, also, to read these exclusions—these acts of “finding” that are also acts of erasure—as a commentary on how this barrage of information is processed by consumers: in the avalanche of data constantly being dispensed and regurgitated, only so much can come through. Like a radio antenna that picks up parts of a sentence but not the whole, Porter’s edits deal with matters of attention as much as they do hidden semantics.
Found Poems is at once concrete poetry and something else entirely. It continually presents objects in the interrogation room of the blank page, but does not—or cannot, by virtue of it being a book with all the standard physical limitations of book-ness—ever fully rid them of their phantoms; the cultural zeitgeist in which they were conceived hangs around, an ectoplasm that both influences how they’re seen and which serves a generative purpose for what might be derived from them. Origin and future direction mingle in these pieces. Over the course of the collection, one can encounter everything from a series of uninterpretable “Facts” or a failed mathematical equation buttressed by “it all adds up”; unexplained electrical diagrams are given room, as is an emblem of dice along with the phrase “THIS IS YOUR LUCKY COMBINATION.” Despite the drollness of these pieces and their sometimes adolescent overtones (which we can trace back to the found ad copy itself), Porter can be hilarious, as with “Six hundred lines of blank verse without any bumble-bees or sunsets is a pretty stiff dose.” He can also invoke the antagonism that capitalism coordinates in order to snag attention from would-be customers: “6 switches / are / 5 more / than you.” This last example, however, draws a more novel observation than the fact of direct address in advertisements. Instead of antagonism directed toward a purpose, as with selling a product, this is unbridled antagonism. It expresses its opportunism through intimidation, the veiled scent of insult behind the kind of advertisement that hopes the achieve commercial success by cultivating a sense of smallness, of inferiority, in the viewer. In pieces like this, Porter conducts a reverse intimidation, coercing the material and language of this piece of media into a space where it no longer has all the familiar crutches that context provides. This is also the case with a series of four questions that, similarly, are compelled to appear naked:
WHERE should you stay?
WHERE should you go?
WHAT should you wear?
WHERE should you dine?
The loudness of these first capitalized words are neutered by the questions’ collective lack of a media-friendly scene. Is each asking about a specific instance, or about a perennial truth? A fleeting preference, or a fashion commandment? Another question in a different part of the book probes, “Do You Think Straight?” In lieu of answers, or of an explanation about their context, these harsh questions—which have the hint of imperativeness to them—become their own bad jokes. Likewise for a series of instructions that make sense as a crude guide to mental competency, but which become a form of self-parody when forced to stand on their own:
1. Distinguish between morning
2. Define familiar objects in
3. Copy a diamond shape.
4. Count 13 pennies.
5. Distinguish between ugly and
Two more projects by Porter that add insight to the investigations of media culture in Found Poems are his 1961 bricolage Aphasia and his series of Do’s and Don’ts [sic]—which, like Found Poems, ask pertinent questions about the distribution of speech, space, and attention. Aphasia, described by the author as “a psycho-visual satire on printed communication,” is constructed entirely of found advertisements, all reproduced in a manner very unlike that of Found Poems. For one, the advertisements are kept in their original colors, and not transposed into black and white. More importantly, the advertisements, like animals in a furnished zoo, are surrounded by more of the context in which they would have first reached the public. Porter’s work can then be found in a more distanced sort of juxtaposition, as each page communicates with the one that precedes it and the one that comes after it. These juxtapositions can be witty (a girl licking a spoon; the word “STOP”; an advertisement for tires), pointed (jewelry; hunting boots), eerie (a lit cigarette lighter; a Christmas-themed beer advertisement), and sexual (women’s skirts; a phallic corn-on-the-cob). Whether or not these correlations were intentional on the part of Porter seem irrelevant: the experiment only proves—and this only partially—the potential for commercially-undesirable correlations to occur. Corporate media is infested with meaning, but also devoid of it; the book’s title, which suggests a loss of speech caused by brain damage, can be understood as a reference to the inability of the consumer to talk back to these advertisements (or, conversely, the inability of the viewer of a work of art to respond to it) just as much as a reference to the incomprehensible babble of a thousand automated voices speaking at once.
Like Aphasia, the Do’s and Don’ts series asks about the right to speak, to interrupt, and to be heard—all central considerations when pondering the material of art, how it is to be interacted with, and whether or not it counts as “art.” But it does so by representing a more reductive, and therefore more immediately clear, dialectic. The call-and-response of the marketplace becomes a series of monologues. “BEGIN / AS A FEW / DROPS OF / WATER ON / ROCK AND / BECOME,” one Do commands. “AID / YOUR / CAT AND DOG,” reads another; “SELL YOUR / INVENTION” yet another. Besides their categorical difference in presenting negative imperatives, the Don’ts enact the same breakdown of the consumer-producer exchange that happens with the Do’s. “WASTE NOT,” one chastises, but others are less uniform: “When and / Where / consider,” for instance, and “Only Do / with.” These orders are understandable or unable to be understood solely in virtue of their material presence; where Porter has interrupted this material, he’s interrupted their meaning, and in many cases divorced them from it. Their commands, no longer decipherable, are unable to be fulfilled—and yet they float out there in the world, but a few of the leftovers consequences media oversaturation. They demand speechlessness to be heard, and thereafter they demand wordless consumption; Porter responds by rendering them speechless consumers of their own methods, caged helplessly in his pages. Like the concrete poems of Velimir Khelbnikov, Eugen Gomringer, and Augusto de Campos—which Marjorie Perloff examines in her essay, “From Avant-Garde to Digital: The Legacy of Brazilian Concrete Poetry”—Porter employs text. But not always, and when he does it is not so much in the service of construction as it is self-inspection.
To “Is it art?” Porter asks, “Is it not? Does this matter?” And while Warhol yearns for empty space, Porter asks what, precisely, occupies it. Though he relentlessly cross-examines versions of media harassment by setting them adrift on an endless feedback loop, it’s also worth noting that he achieves his insights without inserting alien materials into his analyses. In other words, his skill in aesthetic comparison is such that it can provoke these found objects into commenting on themselves. Examples from Found Poems (“Now / you can have / the fastest most”) and his 1982 volume The Book of Do’s (“Tell / your face / you love it,” and another: “Listen to / this page.”), as cited above, stand in contrast to his excerption of images or of colored space, which induce contemplation of a new set of issues, one unable to be parsed in terms of text. Whether the objects of Porter’s searching are textual objects or non-textual ones, his work asks how the world might be if we lost our power to discern the difference between the conveyance of meaning and what, after all of the objects have been swept away, was conveyed. For some, like Jasper Johns and perhaps Porter himself, this was an aesthetic maxim: “A painting,” Johns said, “should be looked at in the same way that we look at a radiator.” Such a dictate doesn’t just overthrow the current hierarchy of the art-altar, but does away with it altogether. It sets such an altar on fire. Art and life converge in a manner terrifying for a pedagogy that would like to teach their separation. His commentary on their entwinement, which must result from a destruction of the barrier between them, is as brutal a satire as there could be—encompassing consumer culture, aesthetics, capitalism, modes of communication, trade, language, the senses, and what the senses produce. Everything, even the process of inquiry, is inquired into. “(This is the answer. Turn page for question.),” reads one tempting page of Found Poems. On the following page, in a manner perhaps to be expected, is an absurd series of fill-in-the-blanks.