"Strategies of appropriation are not signs of weakness, but proof of the vitality of the mind that couples the old with the new." 1. --Todd Bartel, artist & curator
What struck me about Todd Bartel's remark -- made in the introduction to a compelling exhibition of traditional and Avante-garde collage that he recently curated -- is how it resonates with a defender of appropriation strategies in literature, specifically poetry. In her timely essay, Poetry on the Brink, Reinventing the Lyric, Marjorie Perloff suggests that contemporary poetry might benefit from adopting a conceptual approach to the writing, or more exactly, the making of poetry. Central to this approach, according to Perloff, is the practice of appropriation, something introduced in the visual arts at least as far back as the early 20th century but only more recently used in the production of poetry. It is an artistic practice that involves, among other things: transcription, recycling, reframing, grafting, and so forth and is generally understood as work that recontextualizes whatever it borrows to create a new work. Very often the borrowed element remains accessible in its original form, something common to both the poetry that Perloff has in mind and the visual arts of collage and assemblage. Bartel and Perloff are both strong defenders of appropriation. Thinking primarily of collage, Bartel champions appropriation on both aesthetic and conceptual grounds, arguing that collage is a "rewarding visual-intellectual experience." Perloff, on the other hand, reveals what is behind the objection to borrowed writing and a conceptual approach to the making of poetry by asking a fundamental question: "The main charge against Conceptual writing is that the reliance on other people's words negates the essence of lyric poetry. Appropriation, it's detractors insist, produces at best a bloodless [or weak] poetry that, however interesting at the intellectual level, allows for no unique emotional input. If the words are not my own, how can I convey the true voice of feeling unique to lyric?" 2.
This is an important question that should be addressed with care. What the critics of appropriation need to understand, indeed, as do many of those who defend this practice on conceptual grounds, is that aesthetic experience is a cognitive matter that might include the conceptual (and concommitant concerns with discursive, linguistic, and or semiotic approaches to art making) but is not determined by it. This is because the cognitive is broader or more inclusive than the "conceptual," occupying a middle ground on a continuum of consciousness, connecting various non-discursive aspects of knowing and understanding, the intellect at one pole with feeling at the other. Knowing and understanding is a whole and integrative process (perhaps only distinguishable when one is familiar with something without fully comprehending it) involving more than just the intellect. We may not be entirely conscious of how our feelings, for example, color our thoughts, but it happens to even the most logical minds. I believe that the "bloodless" charge against appropriation in the arts can be effectively refuted when this criticism is understood to contain a grain of truth. To fully understand how a "unique emotional imput" is possible using the words of others, a shift of focus from the exclusive activity of "thinking" toward the more inclusive processes of cognition is required. Much depends upon the emotional investment that the artist brings to the work by virtue of the choice of the material appropriated and how it is used. Arbitrary or indifferent use of borrowed material or conversely a heavy-handed or over-determined use of it can perhaps lead to intellectually interesting results, but are not likely to produce an emotionally satisfying work. This does not mean that the poet or artist must surrender the work entirely to feeling; the challenge of selecting the best material for a poem or collage at any given moment involves a marriage of thought and feeling presided over by the imagination. In this way, it is possible to make poetry and art entirely out of found material that is both emotionally and intellectually engaging; poetry or art that is both lyrical and conceptual.
The Lost and Found is a work of collage. It is a tightly structured series of black and white illustrations and texts glued to the end pages taken from old books. The work clearly demonstrates that collage is more than just a technique; it's also a formal principle that, in the words of David Lomas: "crosses over the verbal and the visual and has equivalents in each." 3. The Lost and Found highlights this equivalency by exploring possible word-image associations to produce a hybrid form of cognitive poetry. The illustrations are taken from a variety of sources, including old dictionaries, encyclopedias, and textbooks, and the writings are borrowed from a 19th century spelling book. The illustrations arranged on each page are intended as visual counterparts to the phrases in the numbered passages pasted below them, which are essentially rhyming fragments designed to help the 19th century student master spelling and grammer: "A hat=band," "A can of wax," A pan of sand," for example. Obscure academic texts from the past are often surprisingly poetic in their own right, which is the case with the Victorian era textbook that forms the basis of this series: Watson's Complete Speller, Oral and Written, published by A.S. Barnes & Company,in 1878. The Lost and Found series invites the viewer/reader to make word-image associations with material not originally intended as poetry. The format of the work: a constellation of six excised images arrayed around a circular, central image suggests, indeed prompts a fluidity of interpretation: a back and forth, around and around cognitive process. Thoughts, much like emotions, are essentially transient, momentary and dynamic. The Lost and Found broadens the scope of appropriation strategies in poetry and collage and points to fresh lyrical possibilities.