At the Crossroads of Art and Literature

Intertitles assembles those working at the ‘intersection of writing and visual art’ in an anthology that explores their convergence

Courtesy Prototype Publishing

The problem of how to reconcile formally experimental art with a progressive politics is as old as the left. Here’s the dilemma: place too much emphasis on the former and risk alienating everyone outside the ivory tower you’re supposed to be dismantling; write in a mode ‘accessible’ to wider audiences and stand accused of reproducing the hierarchies embedded in language. This anthology proposes that those working at the ‘intersection of writing and visual art’, the space of poetry, are best equipped to walk the highwire between the exclusionary and the banal. It is to be expected that some of its contributors fall in the attempt; that some succeed feels, like all good poetry, miraculous.

Among the 32 artists, theorists and poets gathered here, it’s no surprise that the last are most adept at balancing word, sound and image to complex effect. Sophie Collins’s response to Lee Bul’s sculpture combines visceral language with jarring rhythms and jagged mise-en-page, like projecting images of an intestine and a razorblade over the jangle of breaking glass. CAConrad’s poems, by contrast, move through the combination of startling images (‘did survivors of the Black Plague/dance with their dead’) with disarming openness. Lines such as ‘argue for beauty’ might sound trite in isolation, but in the living context of these lyrics they are galvanising. Here are reminders that the meaning of words is shaped by the physical responses they provoke and the spirit in which they are delivered and received: language is only imprisoned in definitions if you insist on deferring to dictionaries.

Conrad’s poetics demolishes the idea that high modernism’s semantic strategies – deconstruction, fragmentation, estrangement – are primary qualities of a progressive literature. Why this faith in literary formalism persists in parts of the artworld is mysterious. Curators who wouldn’t dream of hanging geometric abstractions and calling them political will nonetheless trumpet as ‘avant-garde’ (a word that needs retiring) the reanimation of literary forms that died circa 1972. The suspicion is that an excessive attention to textual superficialities, and this extends to the artworld’s mania for jargon, is a substitute for actually doing the work of creating new meaning. Conrad’s poems don’t waste time quibbling over words like ‘beauty’ because they are secure on the ground from which they speak.

Linger at the crossroads of art and literature and you’ll learn that the insistence with which texts, artworks and people announce their radicalism rarely correlates to their practice. You’ll sympathise with Quinn Latimer’s frustration towards artists who broadcast their politics through emails that are only ‘radical in their incoherence’, and also come to suspect that it ‘was always the most shameless and vested in power who waxed/On about healing and vulnerability/And assholes who talked about fonts.’ It is to the editors’ credit that they largely dodge the traps of ‘art writing’ that dazzles to disguise its own vacuity in favour of work that opens up to the reader.

Latimer’s exceptional poems exemplify how the articulation of ideas and feelings naturally generates formal complexity, weaving personal and political into glowing meditations on implication, complicity and relation; Johanna Hedva’s torching of the patriarchy by means of blazing essay-memoir does the same. The most powerful contributions – including, but not limited to, Anaïs Duplan’s collages and Inua Ellams’s constellation of Clondalkin and Compton by way of Tupac – are characterised by their generosity. Rather than pin them to the page or hide them behind a screen, the authors leave their meanings vulnerable to the reader’s interpretation.

My opening dilemma was, after all, a false one. When writers really mean it, the content dictates the form and their readers will follow them through fire. Rather than establishing a new vanguard canon, this anthology is best understood as a useful introduction by editors who mean it to some writers worth following through the coming disasters. The intersection at which it stands joins past and future; its best moments look forward to what an aesthetics after the avant-garde – beyond cheap posturing and merely academic transgression – might look like.

Intertitles, Edited by Jess Chandler, Aimee Selby, Hana Noorali and Lynton Talbot, Prototype Publishing, £15 (softcover)

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