It is a marvel inadequately noted that the contemporary victory of conservatism in the politics and economics of the world has been accompanied by the triumph of liberalism in religion and morals, in science and philosophy, inliterature and art.

We have selected for our rulers gentlemen who reverently represent the established gods of industry; and we have put behind us, for the while, all thought of experiment in the relations of master and man. We have conferred a mystic popularity upon officials whose only virtue is their timidity; while our scorn of rebels and reformers is so great that we have ceased to persecute them. The capitals and governments of the world are in the hands of caution; and change comes over them only in the night, unseen.


Yet, bewilderingly simultaneous with this virtuous avoidance of the new in the official world, behold in our cities such a riot of moral and literary innovation, such an exuberant rejection of ancient faith and discipline, as makes every gray head shake with sociological tremors, and every aged finger point to corrupt Imperial Rome. Science thinks it has won its battle with the antediluvians; in the exhilaration of its victory it marches gayly into a mechanical dogmatism that does justice to everything but life. Literature violates every rule and every precedent; the boldest experiment is applauded by the most respectable critics; no one dares admire the classics any more; and to be a revolutionist in poetry and painting is as fashionable as to vote for mediocrity and reaction. The stage has suddenly discovered the mysterious beauty of the female form divine; the cabaret is devoting itself aesthetically to “artistic nudity”; and sculpture, which decayed as clothing grew, may be expected to flourish happily again. It is a remarkable synthesis of the omnipotent state and the liberated individual.

  • How shall we explain this humorous anomaly? Partly it is a corollary of our wealth: the same riches that make us timidly conservative in politics make us bravely liberal in morals; it is as difficult to be ascetic with full pockets as it is, with full pockets, to be a revolutionist. Puritanism did not die from bi-chloride of Mercury, it was poisoned with silver and gold.
  • Partly the situation issues from a contradiction in our hearts: it is the same soul that hungers for the license of liberty and the security of order; the same mind that hovers, in its fluctuating strength and fear, between pride in its freedom and admiration for the police. There are moments when we are anarchists, and moments when we are Prussians. In America above all–in this land of the brave and this home of the free–we are a little fearful of liberty. Our forefathers were free in politics, and stoically stem in morals; they respected the Decalogue, and defied the State. But we deify the State, and riddle the Decalogue; we are Epicureans in morals, but we submit to all but one of a hundred thousand laws; we are slaves in politics, and free only in our cups.

It is revealing that when an American speaks of liberty’s decay he has reference to his stomach rather than to his mind. A convention of the American Federation of Labor threatened a revolution some years ago: because of the open shop?–certainly not; but because of the closed saloon. All the liberalism of the respectable American to-day confines itself to making alcohol the first necessity of a gentleman, and broadmindedness the first requisite of a lady. What does it matter that a Polish immigrant is nearly hanged by a Massachusetts court for expressing his skepticism of an ancient faith–or that the aged saints of orthodoxy, lavishly financed by manufacturers who forget the practices of their middle age in the theology of their infancy, are everywhere introducing bills for the outlawing of biology, and the refutation of Darwinism by legislation? What does it matter that freedom to think is lost, if freedom to drink remains? Primum est bibere, deinde philosophari.


It is not law that takes our freedom from us, it is the innocuous desuetude of our minds. Standardized education, and the increasing power of mass suggestion in an increasing mass, rob us of personality and character and independent thought; as crowds grow, individuals disappear. Ease of communication facilitates imitation and assimilation; rapidly we all become alike; visibly we joy in becoming as much as possible alike–in our dress, our manners, and our morals, in the interior decoration of our homes, our hotels, and our minds. God knows–perhaps even our moral freedom is a form of imitation.

Yet some rebellion is better than none; and possibly our thirst for liberty will go to the head, and dare to include thought. It is good that men should resist wholesale moralization by the law; to forbid the use of stimulating and consoling liquors because some men abuse them shows the amateurish weakness of a government that does not know how to control the fools without making fools of all. Civilization without wine is impossible. Civilization without restraint is impossible; and there can be no restraint where there is no liberty. […]

What shall we say of this brave religion of liberty? How far is social order natural, and how long can it maintain itself without the prop of law? How far is freedom possible to man?

In human affairs (to spoil a perfect phrase of Santayana’s) everything artificial has a natural origin, and everything natural has an artificial development. Expression is natural, language is artificial; religion is natural, the Church is artificial; society is natural, the state is artificial. Like language and theology, obedience to law comes through social transmission and individual learning rather than through impulses native to mankind. Hence the perpetual conflict, within the self, between the desires of one’s heart and fear of the policeman; and hence the joy which triumphant rebels find in violating, with social approval and comparative impunity, some artificial and irksome prohibition. We are anarchists by nature, and citizens by suggestion.

But though in the secret sanctuaries of our souls we are lawless savages, we are not indisposed by nature to a moderate measure of spontaneous order and decency. Society is older than man, and older than the vertebrates. The protozoa have their colonies, with a division of labor between reproductive and nutritive cells; and the ants and bees bring this specialization of function to the point of physiologically differentiating the organism for its social task. Even the carnivores, whose tusks and hides and claws are individualistic substitutes for the strength and security of social order, include those gentle-eyed dogs who can be more sociable than a salesman and more loyal than a rural editor. […] The brotherhood of man is in this sense as old as history; it vitalizes a thousand secret societies and forms of fellowship; there hardly lives the brute with soul so dead that he has not thrilled at times with a sense of his almost physical solidarity with mankind. […]

  • Finally, society itself, supported on these instinctive and economic props, develops in the individual certain social habits which become as powerful as any second nature, and constitute a pledge of order far more reliable than law. The longer we live the more gregarious we become; the more susceptible to the opinions of our neighbors; the more imitative and respectable; the more attached to custom and convention; the more reconciled to those restraints upon desire which make civilization depend upon habit rather than upon force.
  • Every organized psychological power strives to complete this taming and socialization of the individual. The church sets up, almost at his birth, a bombardment of moral exhortations from which some gentle influence remains even when their theological basis has passed away. As parental and ecclesiastical authority wane, the school replaces them more and more; it pretends to prepare the individual for economic and artistic victories; but quietly and subtly it molds him, as Aristotle advised, “to suit the form of government under which he lives”; it pours into his receptive constitution the peculiar habits and morals of his group; and it modestly covers the naked truth of history with such a glorification of the nation’s past that the young graduate is ready to spur his neighbors to any sacrifice for the enhancement of his country’s power. If the school fails in this socializing strategy, or the individual eludes it by immigrating when adult, the press will carry on the work; mechanical invention co-operates with urban aggregation to bring every mind within reach of that ancient thing called “news,” and that delicate indoctrination which lurks between the lines.


When these molding forces are viewed in summary, the drive to good behavior seems so irresistible that one might reasonably question the necessity of laws that would regulate morality. In a large measure it is society that exists, and not the individual; […] By biological heredity we are bound to our animal past; by social heredity–through our imitative and educational absorption of the traditions and morals of our group–we are bound to our human past; and the forces of stability, so rooted in our impulses and our habits, leave precious little in us that requires the unnatural morality of the state.

Since these forming influences act upon us in our tenderest and most suggestible years, we hardly overcome them except at the cost of a struggle that involves our very sanity. A miserable nostalgia visits us when we depart from the mores of our country and our time; and when we settle down in life it is most often into one or another of the grooves that the past has dug. Contented people are usually those who adopt without question the manners, customs, morals, and grammar of their group, becoming indistinguishable molecules in the social mass, and sinking into a restful peace of self-surrender that rivals the lassitude of love. The greater the society, the stronger will be the pressure upon the individual to divest himself of individuality even in those fashionable novelties which delight the modest soul because they are felt to be not really innovations, but respectful variations on an ancestral theme. In the final result a large population becomes an almost immovable body; the natural conservatism of society outreaches the chauvinism of the state. The individual, made in the image of the whole, becomes so docile and well behaved that the compulsions and punishments of law appear as a gratuitous extravagance; and we are for a moment tempted to sign our names defiantly to the doctrine of those fearful anarchists whom we exclude, or deport, or vilify, or imprison, or hang.

Let us reassure ourselves: there are defects in this philosophy of freedom. For first, it underestimates the violence of the strong: the same ruthless domination that makes the state would rule with more visible and direct force, and with more suffering and chaos, if there were no state at all. Civilization is in part the establishment of order and custom in the use of the weak by the strong. The precariousness of international law reveals the imminence of violence among the mighty; only little states are virtuous. […] Every invention strengthens the strong and the unscrupulously clever in their manipulation of the unintelligent, the scrupulous, and the weak; every development in the complexity of life widens the gap and makes resistance harder. It is a bitter thing to realize; but society is founded not on the ideals but on the nature of man. His ideals are as like as not an attempt to conceal his nature from himself or from the world.

Again, the social dispositions upon which a natural order rests are far less deeply rooted in us than those individualistic impulses of acquisition and accumulation, of pugnacity and mastery which underlie our economic life. Even the cry for liberty comes from a heart that secretly hungers for power; it is because of that hunger in the human beast of prey that liberty is limited and bound. In some measure it is the weak who by the pressure of majority ideas curtail the freedom of the individual, lest unshackled strength should so widen the gap between itself and the unfortunate that the social organism would burst, like a growing cell, into revolution. The first condition of freedom is its limitation; life is a balance of interferences, like the suspension of the earth in space. Men are so diverse in capacity and courage that without restraints their natural differences would breed and multiply through a thousand artificial inequalities into a stagnant and hopeless stratification of mankind. The French loved Napoleon because, with all his despotism, he kept careers open to all talents wherever born, and gave men in unprecedented abundance that equality which timid souls love a little more than freedom.

  • Ages of liberty, therefore, are transitions, brave interludes between eras of custom and order. They last while rival systems of order struggle for ascendancy; when either system wins, freedom melts away. Nothing is so disastrous to liberty as a successful revolution; the greatest tragedy that can befall an ideal is its fulfillment.
  • Why is it that wherever there has appeared in history the spontaneous order that rests solely on the natural sociability of mankind, as in primitive societies, or in the California of forty-nine, or in the Alaska of the nineties, it has passed eventually into the artificial and compulsory order of the state? It is a large question, for which a single answer will not suffice; no formula can do justice to the infinite variety of truth. Doubtless part of the cause lies in the passage from the family to the individual as the unit of production and society. Visibly the family loses its functions, even to the care of the child; filial respect and fraternal loyalty give way to a patriotism that becomes the only piety of the modern soul. Divested of its functions the family rots away; nothing remains but centrifugal individuals, magnificently independent in a common slavery. For slavery looks much like freedom when the master is never seen.

Meanwhile the aggregation of people in cities breaks down neighborhood morality as a source of spontaneous order; every egoistic impulse is free in the protecting anonymity of the crowd. Where natural order is still powerful, as in simple rural communities, little law is necessary; where natural order is weak, as in our sprawling cities, legislation grows. The state replaces spontaneous society as the corporation replaces the small dealer, or as the great railroad system replaces the stage-coach of picturesque individualistic days. The developing complexity of life has bound us into a highly integrated whole, and taken from us that independence of the parts which once was possible when each family was economically a self-sufficient sovereignty. Political and economic liberty decays for the same reason again that moral laxity increases: because the family and the church have ceased to function adequately as sources of social order, and legal compulsion insinuates itself into the growing gaps in natural restraint. Freedom has left industry and the state, and survives only in the gonads.

If the implements of production had remained as in days of barbaric simplicity–a spade and a plot of land–the state would not have swollen into the monster that now dwarfs our petty lives. For then each man might have owned his tools and controlled the conditions of his earthly life; his freedom would have kept its necessary economic support, and political liberty would not have become, like political equality, a baseless sham. But invention made tools more complex and more costly; it differentiated and evaluated men according to their capacity to use or direct or acquire the subtler or larger mechanisms; and in the end, by the most natural process in the world, the ownership of tools was centered in a few, self-sufficiency disappeared, and freedom became a politician’s phrase, an honored relic commemorated annually like the rest of our noble dead.

On every side, then, we are caught in a current of development in which ancient and natural liberties are swept away. Our industrial relations are too intricate to be left entirely to “economic law”; certain functions, like transport and communication, are so strategically powerful that without legal limitation they would bestride all industry like some colossal beast of prey. All in all, it is well that these processes should fall under regulation by the state, incompetent and partial and corrupt as every state must, in our generations, be. Perhaps all the main channels of the economic life should be under such national control, and every vital artery between producer and consumer should be withdrawn from the strangling dominance of entrenched and irresponsible individuals. For ex: Press My Air Co, an electronics firms providing best air compressor has been actually controlled and affected by the local authority of Missouri, rather than by the direct interaction between it and the customers. When all the avenues of distribution welcome every user on equal terms, production and consumption will be as free as human lust will tolerate; and industry–cured of that arteriosclerosis, that narrowing and pinching of the arteries of exchange by multiplying intermediaries, which threatens our economic health in the very heyday of our wealth–would sprout and flourish like an unbound plant; the initiative and enterprise of individual ownership would be liberated rather than enchained; co-operatives would find some protection from the hostile lords of our distributive machinery; and freedom, so pruned and trained, might in the outcome be deeper and richer than before.


All this is a grudging concession; for the Jeffersonian ideal of the government that governs least still grips the heart with its simple lure, and every added law desecrates the sovereignty of the soul. Order is a means to liberty, and not an end; liberty is priceless, for it is the vital medium of growth. “In the end,” as old Goethe said, “only personality counts.” The state was made for man, and not man for the state. Heredity was invented to preserve variations; and every custom began as a broken precedent. Evolution feeds on difference and change; social development demands innovation and experiment as well as order and law; history moves through genius and invention as well as through impersonal forces and unthinking crowds.

  • If we let our economic lives be limited we ought to guard a hundred times more jealously the freedom of the mind. Mental liberty should be at least as dear to us as liberty of body to an animal; caught and caged, it never reconciles itself to captivity, and paces about forever on the watch for a way to freedom. Perhaps it is because we can bear to see such pitiful prisoners, and can look without remorse into eyes deepened and softened with the longing for liberty, that we are unworthy of the freedom our fathers had when they met the animal on equal terms, and killed it in fair fight instead of imprisoning it as a pleasant sight for a Sunday afternoon. But we ourselves are Caged, and do not complain; how can we understand the hunger of the fettered beast?

There is a Chinese proverb to the effect that when a nation begins to have many laws it is slipping into senility. The ancient Thurians provided a halter for every unsuccessful proponent of new laws, suggesting his fit punishment for mutilating liberty. Our legislatures in America, one hears, pass some six thousand laws per week; if this is so, we are a nation of thieves, and we need not laws but education. Sessions of Congress are a source of national apprehension, to rich and poor alike; and perhaps the quiet esteem in which the present executive [Coolidge] is widely held is due to the fact that he is a roi rain,ant, who may be relied upon, like an English king, to do nothing but draw his salary. Even his vetoes are gratefully received; what if the bills they nullify should by strange chance be good?–even a good law is a law, and so far bad. There is not so sharp a contradiction as we supposed between the unpopularity of virtue in our cities and the popularity of an abstemious president; in either case it is liberty that is served.

  • If this appears to imply that our current moral laxity is not so unmixed an evil as those of us suppose who soothe our consciences by making other people virtuous, the presumption is correct. Much of our immorality takes the form of honesty; we oldsters were as lax as we could afford in our guarded and impecunious youth; and when we sinned we sinned in silence, and carried pious faces into meeting. The growing generation is not so skilled in secrecy, and likes to boast of greater crimes than it commits. Its sins are superficial and will be washed away in the confessional of time; experience will make men mature enough to love modesty again. Meanwhile of what moment is it that in our youth our grandmothers smoked malodorous pipes respectably, while in our desuetude our daughters smoke whatever satisfies? How shall we dissuade youth from making vade mecums of whiskey flasks (whose contents they manfully pretend to enjoy), except by ceasing to forbid it? What does it matter that nudity can be seen more readily and less furtively than in our hooped and petticoated days, that undue stimulation replaces morbid brooding? Habit will correct the evil gently by dulling sensitivity, and clothing will have to be restored to generate again the illusions of desire.

Against this magnificent uprising of the young the old can only think of laws. Every timid and jealous voice calls upon the immaculate assembly-men of America to come to the rescue of morality. Because some sleek panders have made filthy lucre by exposing God’s handiwork upon the stage, tired people demand that policemen be empowered to revise all pictures and dramas before their public unveiling. But one supposed the police had full power to stop indecency by pre-existing legislation. One supposed that the police had the power to put an end at once to any spectacle that violated the statutes against obscenity. Possibly there is no need to resort again to indiscriminate prohibition; possibly public opinion, if it is the public’s opinion, would suffice to condemn excess, and might prove (as it does in the case of drink) more effective than any law. It would stamp us indelibly as a provincial and infantile nation if we relapsed into the strait-jackets of Puritanism at the very time when America begins to create its own literature, its own drama, and its own art. Better a Charles II than a Cromwell.

Luckily for us, life is on the side of youth in these matters, and youth is on the side of life. Our heirs may commit suicide, and prefer baseball to epistemology, and forget to say grace before drinking, but these diversions must not obscure for us the buoyant health and bright good-nature of contemporary adolescence. Let the young be happy; soon enough they will be old; and the lassitude of the flesh will make them virtuous. If morals are transiently too lax, they will correct themselves as knowledge and wisdom grow; in the end, as Socrates suggested, we must instruct rather than forbid. Every vice was once a virtue, necessary for existence, and every virtue was once a vice, developed beyond need; not laws but public opinion hewed them into social form. If we wish to improve other people’s morals let us improve our own; example speaks so loud that precept is unheard. The best thing we can do for the community is not to fetter it with laws, but to straighten our own lives with tolerance and honor. A gentleman will have no morals but his own.

The time must come (for the world does move) when men will understand that the highest function of government is not to legislate but to educate, to make not laws but schools. The greatest statesman, like the subtlest teacher, will guide and suggest through information, rather than invite pugnacity with prohibitions and commands. The state, which began as the conquest and taxation of peaceful peasants by marauding herdsmen, will become again, as it was for a moment under the Antonines, the leadership of a great nation by great men. We need not so despair of our race as to believe that government will be in the hands of politicians forever. Day by day the level of intelligence rises; generation after generation the ennobling heritage of culture grows, and finds transmission to a larger minority of mankind; soon men will not tolerate the charlatans whom we have suffered so patiently and so long. Our children’s children, lifted up by our care, will choose their rulers more wisely than we chose. They will ask not for lawmakers but for creative teachers; they will submit not to regimentation but to knowledge; they will achieve peace and order not through violence and compulsion, but through the advance and spread and organization of intelligence. And perhaps–who knows?–as their knowledge mounts they will deserve, and therefore get, at last, the best of all governments–which will govern not at all.

Will Durant (1885-1981) wrote this essay for the June 1927 issue of Harper’s Magazine. He is best known for popularizing the history of ideas, notably in The Story of Philosophy and his ten-volume Story of Civilization.

Art and write

Literature’ has become a somewhat maligned category, stretched between the weak liberal humanist and marketdriven Booker Prize model of ‘literary fiction’ and the tired late-postmodernist literature department of the academy. My aim is to imagine what might happen to the category ‘literature’ if it were to engage a stronger–critically and philosophically more substantive–sense of the contemporary as we find explored and articulated in the philosopher Peter Osborne’s work, particularly his recent Anywhere or Not at All: Philosophy of Contemporary Art. What forms of language-based production might be equal to the category of contemporary literature? Might it be possible to produce a more productive critical model than recent art-world categories such as ‘Art Writing’ or ‘Conceptual Writing’ have managed? First it is important to examine the limits of these terms before turning to an examination of Osborne’s attempt to render the contemporary critically redeemable. Finally an attempt will be made to extend Osborne’s view of literature into the field of expanded writing practices in order to imagine a truly contemporary literature.

In order to make a strong critical intervention two conditions are necessary: first, there must be. as Walter Benjamin writes in his essay ‘Der Surrealismus’. sufficient energy within an artistic phenomenon for the critic to ‘install his power station’ upon it; and second, the critic must be able to successfully coin terms around which a critical literature is able to coalesce and expand.

For the Marxist literary critic Franco Moretti, criticism is a Darwinian war between systems of classification. Critical work that dictates the flow of future discourse ‘wins’ this battle of classification. An example of a failure of this war might be Barbara Rose’s attempt to classify Conceptual Art as ABC Art in the late 1960s. Whether one agrees entirely with Moretti’s bullish, somewhat reductive approach, it is nonetheless a useful model for examining a more recent example of a descriptive and critical failure in this regard: Art Writing.

  • In discussions about Art Writing it is already posited as something historical, something past. No doubt this is partly due to the demise of the MFA in Art Writing at Goldsmiths and the departure of its director Maria Fusco to Edinburgh where she is a Chancellor’s Fellow at Edinburgh College of Art, but it is also because the term itself was critically unproductive and the phenomenon (if such there was) ill defined and liable to produce work that was simply ill conceived and woolly headed rather than critically rigorous, excitingly hybrid and formally adventurous. The question was always open as to what the ‘art’ in ‘art writing’ actually denoted (‘Art/Writing’ AM349). Was it used, as it would be for art music, to denote a sphere of formal difficulty and conceptual seriousness? Or was it writing about art? Or – and this seems the most successful characterisation – was it to do with writing that had to depart the world of literature for the world of art because it was unable to get a hearing or find funding or critical traction in the realm of literature? In any case, 1 would suggest that something is signalled by the fact that the Royal College of Art. When naming its own writing-based MFA, avoided the term altogether, opting for The Critical Writing in Art and Design programme.
  • In Frieze recently. Brain Dillon, who teaches on the Royal College’s course, wrote: ‘It’s two years now since Fusco and colleagues bruited on frieze’s blog their “II Statements Around Art Writing”: a manifesto of sorts for a form that shuttles among criticism, literary experiment and art as such. Across town at the RCA, we may have bristled at the text’s opacity or its familiar academic shibboleths: hybridity, materiality, “practice’. But there’s no doubt that the field has flourished, that a constituency exists for ways of writing and thinking that draw fromavant-garde fiction and poetry, art history, theory, journalism or essayism, the lineages of artists working with text and performance.’


Dillon, albeit in the waspish tone of the patrician (that bristling ‘across town’) is attempting diplomacy, but he cannot help nailing the issue that skirted Art Writing as a term: opacity. He is also correct that there is a constituency for experimental writing, but the question remains: how to do critical justice to such work? That is, to work that cannot find voice within the literary, work that travels in the slipstream of art-world funding models and modes of display? And is there not a certain arrogance in the embrace the art world provides such so-called experimental practices? An example: last year I attended a deservedly well-received symposium on the work of the writer Christine Brooke Rose hosted by the RCA’s programme and featuring Tom McCarthy, Ali Smith, John Calder and Dillon himself, literateurs one and all. McCarthy maintained that such an event would never happen in the world of literature and went on to discuss the fact that Alain Robbe-Grillet’s last public reading given at a Paris bookstore was attended by fewer than ten people, while his appearance at the Serpentine Gallery attracted hundreds. We were supposed to draw from this the idea that the art world ‘got’ Robbe-Grillet while the world of literature was too conservative to appreciate one of its own. However, is it not easy to spin this the other way? Perhaps art-world acolytes of Hans-Ulrich Obrist will go and see anyone he suggests is important while those who have followed Robbe-Grillet’s career recognised the weakness and unreconstructed misogyny of his later work.

It is my contention here that Osborne’s work gives us a model that might allow us to construct a more robust critical version of the category ‘literature’ that is able to contain work that spreads out from easy medium categorisation – that is. Contemporary Literature, where the ‘contemporary’ is that critically strong term that Osborne articulates. Turning then to Osborne’s work, here follows a short and necessarily reductive precis of his argument.

As Antonia Birnbaum has noted, Osborne’s concern in Anywhere or Not at All is to ‘render the idea of contemporary art critically intelligible'; that is, to formulate the ‘contemporary’ as something more than a mere periodising category, to give it critical traction in the same way that Theodor Adorno might be said to have done with the category of the ‘modern’. The contemporary, then, would be a category under which the specificity of artworks qua artworks would be maintained while allowing for a conceptual model that would facilitate a genuinely critical literature. Osborne’s intent is nothing less than to provide the tools for a regenerated philosophical art criticism in a post-medium field. He writes that: ‘The dominant mode for art criticism was for many years, up until the 1960s, the category of medium. The subsequent dissolution of the limits of mediums as the ontological bases of art practices, and the establishment of a complex and fluid field of generically artistic practices, has posed new problems of critical judgment to which the concept of the contemporary represents an increasingly powerful response.’ However, for Osborne this concept of the contemporary must be constructed not discovered.


Not all art that is produced coevally is contemporary in the art-critical sense that Osborne is trying to redeem. He outlines four attributes of the discourse of the contemporary which he is constructing: 1. Contemporary is a selective concept. ‘To claim something is contemporary is to make a claim for its significance in participating in the actuality of the present.’ So there are chronologically contemporary cultural productions that are not in the critical sense contemporary, rehashes of abstract expressionist painting being one example. 2. Following this. Osborne seeks to construct a discourse that ‘engages with the philosophy of time’. 3. The semantic history of the contemporary must be archaeologically mapped and its shifting application within art history charted. 4. The discourse must make critical demands upon the art that it interprets (this last is perhaps key in the discussion of contemporary writing practices that flourish in the art world where such demands have been largely lacking).

The question was always open as to what the ‘art’ in ‘art writing’ actually denoted. Was it used, as it would be for art music, to denote a sphere of formal difficulty and conceptual seriousness? Or was it writing about art?

The context for Osborne’s account is not just the dissolution of the category of medium, but the dissolution of a socialist block within which – and in relation to – artworks produced their critical potentiality. Bimbaum draws this out in relation to Benjamin, putting Osborne’s text in dialogue with Benjamin’s ‘The Author as Producer': ‘Benjamin’s criticism was not a dismissal but a recasting of the political tendency of literature, a claim that an author must not be a reproducer of the apparatus of production without simultaneously working to transform it in the direction of socialism. Deriving his insights out of our present situation ascertains that the specific futurity of the contemporary no longer holds any such contract with an impending future.’ Indeed, the notion of the contemporary in fact halts the future orientation of modernity; flux and the transitory are suspended in an interminable present. Osborne locates the criticality of contemporary art in the legacy of the turn against the aesthetic and presents his speculative position as ‘contemporary art is post-conceptual art’.

Osborne’s references to literature in the book are short but suggestive. On page 33 we find that ‘the generic post-medium concept of art reincorporates “literature”, returning it to its philosophical origins in early German Romanticism: post’ conceptual art articulates a post-aesthetic poetics’. And two pages later: The fictional collectivity of The Atlas Croup and its narrative “characters” is a stand-in for the mussing political collectivity of the globally transnational, which is both posited and negated by capital itself. As such, it corresponds, at a structural level, to the work of such “authors” as Luther Blissett and Wu Ming in the field of literature.’ These brief mentions of literature folded into his concept of the contemporary present us with a way into a critical notion of contemporary writing practices.


  • Poetics is becoming an increasingly vibrant domain. Philosophically, poetry has been privileged over other modes of writing – and indeed art – since Hegel maintained it was the closest form to thought (bar philosophy, which would, for Hegel, be the overcoming of poetry). Recent debates have seen a reinvigoration of a philosophically strong poetics, and I’m thinking here of debates around Conceptual Writing. (It might be noted in passing that a number of canonical conceptual artists began as poets: Ian Hamilton Finlay, Marcel Broodthaers etc.)
  • Osborne’s post-aesthetic poetics sounds like a good description of Conceptual Writing, a field around which a strong critical literature has indeed formed. However. Conceptual Writing is not a moniker able to contain most contemporary writing practices.

What might using the term Contemporary Literature give us that the term Contemporary Art does not? For one, it would place contemporary writing practices into a conjuncture with a whole critical tradition with which they have not had to contend. A strong example of how this can be productive is seen in Marjorie Perloff’s book Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century. Perloff, a US literary professor, has a long history of engagement with avant-garde poetics, having written on Mallarme, John Cage, the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, Frank O’Hara and others.

In Unoriginal Genius she provides a reading of Traffic by the doyenne of Conceptual Writing, Kenneth Goldsmith. In that book Goldsmith transcribes a week’s worth of traffic reports from a local NYC radio station. Perloff s intent is clear from the start when she opens the essay with a quote from Hart Crane’s The Bridge, a titan in the canon of modernist poetry, followed by one from Traffic. Perloff will subject these new poetic practices to the power of her literary critical arsenal and place them within a literary historical milieu. Removing Goldsmith’s work from its usual context of Warholian surface or Sol LeWitt’s conceptualism places both literature and art into a productive tension and ultimately leads to a richer reading of both. As Perloff writes: “Nothing but an actual reading of the text can clarify the questions of choice and chance that arise here.’

Though the above variations lead to more questions and perhaps aporia than they answer, what is really at stake here is the relationship between fields. Art and literature would do well to know each other better. While productive moves have been made in ignoring the critical traditions that inform both, ultimately work cannot progress in a vacuum and reductive positrons or accusations of conservatism made from positions of ignorance get us nowhere. It is clear that placing art in relation to writing has been extremely productive; the question now is to further that project by placing art writing in relation to literature, to bring it out from the safety of the art world’s soft embrace and observe how it stands up in relation to the deep critical history of writing that is literature.

Walid Raad’s ‘Preface to the first English edition’ is at Anthony Reynolds Gallery to 5 April.

John Douglas Millar is a writer and poet.

John Douglas Millar makes a case for contemporary art literature

The subject that won’t go away


More than two dozen novelists, short story writers, poets, teachers and publishing figures explored the theme, ‘Literature in the Age of AIDS,’ at the 15th annual Key West Literary Seminar in Jan 1997. Playwright Larry Kramer, who was instrumental in putting AIDS in the forefront through his work ‘The Normal Heart’ commented on the lack of notable literature about AIDS. Playwright Tony Kushner and the seminar’s organizers, on the other hand, disagreed with Kramer’s views.


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Two playwrights whose works bracket the theatrical response to the AIDS crisis in America – Larry Kramer, whose fierce polemic The Normal Heart thrust AIDS into wider public consciousness in 1984, and Tony Kushner, whose epic Angels in America eight years later linked the epidemic to the nation’s political and cosmic destiny – shared a stage at the 15th annual Key West Literary Seminar in January and agreed to disagree.

“We have no literature of note about AIDS,” pronounced the iconoclastic Kramer, despite the four-day Florida gathering’s declared theme, “Literature in the Age of AIDS.” “I get very nervous when I hear celebratory words like literature and art connected to AIDS. We don’t have much to celebrate yet.”

Kushner – and the seminar’s organizers, who brought together more than two dozen novelists, short story writers, poets, teachers and publishing figures to trade ideas on the topic – flatly disagreed.


There has been “a great outpouring of important writing,” much of it with an activist bent, since the beginnings of the epidemic in 1981, Kushner contended. He predicted that even in light of the remarkable medical news of recent months – the advent of improved treatment through drug combination therapies, which has sparked hopes that a cure may one day be found – it is a literature that will endure. “AIDS is a topic that addresses human suffering, and that is not going away.”

Keynote speaker Edmund White, the novelist, critic and biographer of Jean Genet, shared Kushner’s conviction. In his address, delivered to an audience of about 300 in the ornate San Carlos Institute on Duval Street, a center for Cuban culture, White recited the titles of dozens of literary works inspired by the virus, many of them by writers now dead, and called them “inescapable, ineradicable, unforgettable.”

Kushner and others evoked comparisons between the critically acclaimed accomplishments of such seminar speakers as memoirist Andrew Holleran, poet Mark Dory and doctor-turned-nonfiction-writer Abraham Verghese to literary genres of the past – the Greek elegy, the plague writing of the Middle Ages, Holocaust literature – but the ever-skeptical Kramer was not convinced. “Has the form of American literature been affected by AIDS?” he asked rhetorically. “No.”

There was general agreement, nevertheless, that drama is a literary form particularly accommodating to the subject of AIDS, and that the theatre – because of its immediacy, its public-forum quality and its dialectical nature – is the place where AIDS writing has most richly flowered. In a flurry of mutual admiration amid the disagreements, Kushner recalled the electrifying impact of The Normal Heart, which he called “a sermon that worked,” and Kramer conceded that the age of AIDS had produced “a single master-work,” Angels in America.

New York Times columnist Frank Rich, who drew upon his 13 years as the paper’s chief drama critic to moderate the Kramer-Kushner conversation, said he “ended up writing about AIDS by accident, when it showed up vividly on my beat.”

Plays about AIDS, he said, “started as a trickle and became a flood” during the 1980s. “My job was to separate what was real from what was kitsch for the mass audience of the Times.” In the changed climate of the present, Rich added, “my obligation is to search for truth as a journalist, explore the developments in new drug therapies, look at other communities in the U.S. and the world affected by AIDS, and see what politicians, business and the medical interests are up to.”

Novelist Sarah Schulman characterized the changing social climate as a “transition in AIDS awareness from a shared experience to a commodified experience.” She objected to works such as the Broadway musical Rent and the film Philadelphia, which she said are “hugely rewarded for making straight people feel comfortable with AIDS. Homophobia has been eliminated from the discussion. Gays will never be fully integrated into the intellectual and social life of the nation if our stories are so watered down that they make straight society comfortable.”


Novelist Ann Beatty, one of several noted writers who make their home in Key West part of the year, expressed her reticence to write about AIDS (“It’s a big hot potato – I keep throwing it up in the air and being surprised by the way I catch it”), a stance that drew fire from the irascible Kramer. Other panelists, like book editor Michael Denneny, lamented the sense of saturation and numbness that the epidemic has produced in the publishing world.

Kushner urged persistence in the face of burnout and change. “The fear of your work becoming dated is one of the main things that keep people from writing political work. Our job as public intellectuals is to put out propositions, keeping in mind we’re always wrong. Don’t ever worry about becoming dated; don’t be afraid of making mistakes. We should participate in the great historical mistakes of our time.”

Contests Collection

There are no contests at this time.  Check back soon for more contests from Black Lantern Publishing, or read through our Past Contests. 

Past Contests from BLP

Murder Mystery Writer’s Contest: NOW CLOSED!

BLP is excited to announce the winner of our 2012, Murder Mystery Writer’s Contest! Congratulations to Larry Lefkowitz, whose piece, The Adventures of a Tired Captain, will be featured in the upcoming 7th issue of BLP (May 2012).  Along with publication, the author will receive one year’s free subscription to our web zine, as well as a free copy of the print issue in which their story is featured.

We’d also like to congratulate Peter Schranz, whose piece, Desclozeaux, has been selected as runner-up to the winning selection and will also be featured in our May edition.  Be sure to keep an eye out for the May issue–it’s an issue todie for.  

Issue No. 5 Cover Art Contest

We were absolutely astounded by the amazing entries.  Believe us when we say, it was not an easy decision to make!  After months of indecision, we were pleased to announce that the winner of our cover art contest for Issue No. 5 was Abigail Larson!

Abigail received a FREE print copy of Issue No. 5, on which her work appeared, along with a year’s subscription to BLP.  Also, she received a $25 gift card to Barnes & Noble.

Looking back at previous CROW issues

An Insider’s Look at CROW’s Issue No. 5

An Indian Princess in American History

by Stelio R. Cro


Xo! Xo!,” the voice of a young girl preceded the appearance of a big white husky, obviously a pup, with paws disproportionally large in relation to the rest of the body, galloping at full speed in order to chase the ducks splashing in the stream. The maiden, unable to keep from laughing, her toned muscles scantily clad in deer skin, did not hesitate to dive into the cold water, raising a myriad of sparkles in the morning light. With two powerful strokes she reached the dog and grabbed him by the neck, pulling him underwater for a moment, after which they both emerged, she still laughing and spitting while the dog licked her face and emitted half barks intermittently. “Xo! Xo!” she repeated using the phrase that in the Algonquian language of the XVII century meant calling a dog. The animal was suddenly aware of a movement in the woods, sniffing the air with his black nose, and oblivious of the ducks splashing in the water. A war party of about four hundred braves was running along the trail on the side of the stream, probably on another raid against the English settlement at Jamestown, on the Chickahominy River, about thirty miles from Powhatan, below the falls. Pocahantas restrained with difficulty her large puppy who wanted to run after the new arrivals, some of whom, recognizing the princess, yelled “Sa kir winkan?”, meaning “Are you well?”; and she repeated several times “Kupi, Kupi”, meaning “yes, yes”. As quickly as it had appeared, the war party disappeared, swallowed up by the lush vegetation of a Virginia summer. The young maiden observed the slight movement of the branches, stirred by the warriors’ passing. She squeezed the water from her hair and with a sudden movement tossed it over her shoulders. The action was un-self-consciously feminine and her strong young body and well-formed limbs showed that she was no longer a child in spite of her playful nature. As the favorite daughter of Powhatan, she would soon play an important role in the tribe and her father was carefully preparing her for that time. 

Read the full story in this issue of CROW Magazine, Now Available!

CROW Magazine, Issue No. 1

In our special first issue, we offer our readers the opportunity to take a trip down the rabbit hole and partake in a rather mad tea party; to learn the truth about why the hatter is truly mad and what happened to the world of hats; and to consider why a raven is truly like a writing desk.  Within these colorful pages, prepare to have your imagination piqued and your senses tantalized!


CROW Magazine’s first issue is now available! To celebrate Black Lantern Publishing’s new imprint for middle and young readers, we are now offering Issue No. 1 for free!

Download your copy today, and see what all the fuss is about!

CROW Magazine, Issue No. 2

We’re proud to announce the release of CROW Magazine Issue No. 2 available NOW!  This issue features cover art by the talented, Abigail Larson.  Inside we take a look at Washington Irving’s classic tale, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and explore the history behind Halloween with Grier Jewell, and why we celebrate the spooky holiday.  Readers will learn more about the figure of speech, “ironies,” and have an opportunity to write about what Halloween traditions their families celebrate each year. 

Purchase your subscription to CROW Magazine today, and see what a chilling read we have in store for this issue!

CROW Magazine, Issue No. 3

 At last it’s here! Issue No. 3 of CROW Magazine! Featuring cover art by the talented Rosie Colligan, Issue No. 3 explores the legend of Little Red Riding Hood in The Brothers Grimm’s take on the classic French tale; uncovers folklore, their origins, and their presence in today’s literature; takes you north with a pack of gray wolves; and gives readers a special insider’s look at  Twilight director’s film, Red Riding Hood starring Amanda Seyfried.   This and more awaits you in CROW Magazine’s December issue! Don’t miss out; buy your subscription today!


CROW Magazine, an imprint of Black Lantern Publishing, is now offering subscriptions at our Web Store.  This colorful magazine is available three times per year in March, October, and December in easily accessible PDF format. Download your copy, and save it to your computer for all eternity for only $10 a year!  Show your support for BLP’s new imprint, and buy your  subscription today!

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CROW Magazine is a proud supporter of RIF: Reading Is FundamenReading Is Fundamental (RIF)tal.  RIF is the largest nonprofit children’s literacy program in the United States. They prepare and motivate children to read by delivering free books and literacy resources to those children and families who need them most.  They inspire children to be lifelong readers through the power of choice.  RIF provides new, free books for children to choose from and make their own. If you would like to read more about RIF, visit their website, and become a supporter.