Polyartist: An Interview with Richard Kostelanetz

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February 27, 2012

Richard Kostelanetz is an exceptionally prolific artist and writer.He began publishing essays in the 1960s, including a much-reprinted critique of identity politics in American art, “Militant Minorities,” which originally appeared in theHudson Review in 1965. Since then he’s gone on to create avant-garde art in a variety of genres. He’s written more than 100 books; he also makes prints, produces work for the radio waves and the theater, and works with tapeloops (audio) and pixels (video). He’s completed artist residencies in places as diverse as New York, Stockholm, and Jerusalem.

He’s been called the “king of the avant-garde,” perhaps because two seminal texts in the field bear his name; Kostelanetz authored A Dictionary of the Avant-Gardes, and edited Avant-Garde Tradition in Literature. In recent years, he’s come to perceive Jewishness as a subtle theme woven throughout his oeuvre. In this interview, we spoken about polyartistry, Jewish identity and what makes Sephardic culture unique, the avant-garde, and what relevance he hopes can be found in his work. Though he stops short of drawing a direct connection between Jewishness and the avant-garde, I can’t help seeing a link. The avant-garde pushes the growing edge of culture, skating comfortably past the edge of what’s comfortable or mainstream.

There may not be a causal relationship between Jewishness and an avant-garde sensibility, but Jewish communities have given rise to some terrific avant-garde work. Or maybe Jews just tend to be comfortable outside the mainstream, which is often where the most interesting creative work flourishes and finds its home.

Richard Kostelanetz

Your written work ranges from lengthy essays to single-sentence stories. When you begin a new piece, do you have a sense for its ideal size or form? How do your works take shape?

Sometimes I begin with an extreme constraint regarding length. Epiphanies, Openings & Closings, and then Complete Stories were all no more than a single sentence long; my micro fictions are no more than three words long; my Miniature Aphorisms are no more than four words long. Recently I’ve produced several kinds of poems with only one word. I like constraints for forcing me to produce radically different work.

Your Seven Jewish Short Fictions consist of strings of numbers artfully arranged. How did that piece come into being? Was it an intentional gesture toward the Jewish hermeneutic tool of gematria?

I’ve long respected the radical principle that truly Jewish art should observe the proscription against graven images. That’s the point implicit in telling a story entirely in numbers while suggesting a wealth of experience such as rise and decline, accumulation and dispersal, or any other way you choose to read those numbers arrayed. One unusual quality of our films about the Great Jewish Cemetery of Berlin is that no talking heads appear, though people are heard on the soundtrack. The visual theme is that the gravestones in a cemetery tell a more important story than any faces. Gematria is too obscure for my taste. In general, I’m opposed to obscurity in art and writing. My work tends to be simple, if different.

I’m fascinated by your audio work, especially Invocations (which in your words “incorporates prayers spoken by over four dozen ministers, in over two dozen languages, into duets, quintets, choruses and successive solos that are ultimately about the sound of the language of prayer”). What can you tell us about that piece’s origins or the experience of making it?

The inspiration for Invocations was living for a month in 1980 at Mishkenot Sha’ananim in Jerusalem and then walking through the Old City, which is inspiring to a level that few places on Earth can be. The following year, Sender Freies Berlin commissioned it for its Horspiel or ear-play programming. As I’ve written, the principal literary influence was James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, whose theme is the same story in many languages; the principal musical model was J. S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.

Are you consciously in conversation with artists like Steve Reich, whose Different Trains and Tehilim take Jewish texts (Holocaust narratives and psalms, respectively) and turn them into spoken-word music? (On a related note: whom do you consider your peers or contemporaries?)

Steve I’ve known for decades; likewise his wife Beryl Korot. My recollections of conversations with them are, however, dim. More significantly, do you know Alvin Curran’s Crystal Psalms about Kristalnacht that he made for the same German radio station that sponsored my Kaddish? Do you know the visual literature of Paul Zelevansky, who frequently reworks Jewish themes? The remarkable aphorisms of B.Z. Niditch?

I don’t, but am making note of these names; thank you! Curran and Zelevansky both get entries in my Dictionary of the Avant-Gardes (2000). My friend Clayton Patterson, the videographer and chronicler of the Lower East Side, recommends Boris Lurie and Lionel Ziprin. Someday I’d like to do an anthology of American Jewish writers/artists customarily excluded from that category.

Richard Kostelanetz

Don’t forget that nearly all the major Jewish music of my generation was sponsored in Germany. American Jewish foundations, in my observation, either didn’t understand what art is, to phrase it graciously, or preferred to let Germans seize the opportunity. Once I got to Berlin, as a guest of its DAAD Kunstlerprogramm, I did more Jewish art than I did before or since. I find it odd that New York City doesn’t have a synagogue favored by Jewish artists. Some go to the schul with eccentric architecture on White Street in Tribeca. Founded to serve Tribeca workers, when that downtown neighborhood still had factories and offices, it recently changed its name from the Civic Center Synagogue to the Synagogue for the Arts, no joke. Though I know some artists who go there, they don’t recommend the rabbi; it also has an art gallery whose exhibitions I’ve found trivial.

To one and all, I recommend Beit Simchat Torah, ostensibly gay and lesbian, for its rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, at once more profound and funnier than most, and its congregation, which culturally reflects downtown Manhattan, where I’ve lived most of my life. About its Yom Kippur service, traditionally at the magnificent Crystal Palace at the Javits Center, a friend comments it was the first she ever attended that “wasn’t a fashion show.”

A few years ago, a decrepit orthodox synagogue over near Avenue C tried to reorganize for artists. I remember an opening where many prominent East Village people showed up, all of them, including gentiles, wearing baseball caps, as Steve Reich does, as our preferred kippah. However, I never again heard from the fellow organizing it, a television director named Zebra Davis. Maybe in Artists’ Bushwick, to which I’m now relocating, someone is forming an artists’ synagogue I don’t now know about but would gladly join.

When I planned in 2001 to move to the Rockaways, which are beach towns within New York City proper and thus connected to the MTA subway, I was near an abandoned schul whose magnificent architecture earned it an entry in the AIA Guide to New York City (2000). Since its chief lived far away, I planned to form a new congregation for artists and eccentrics. However, soon afterwards the building burned down, and for another reason I never moved there.

Many of the avant-garde figures with which I’m familiar were interested in abandoning context. They were interested in “the thing itself,” as William Carlos Williams wrote, taking a particular sound or rhythm or media and abstracting until there was nothing left but the pure sound/media/word/etc.

That’s fairly at odds with a multilayered, textured relationship to the past, which I see in your writings about the Jewish cemetery in Berlin and your profiles of figures such as Gertrude Stein. Any thoughts on that point of tension?

Values important in art differ from those important in the expositions you mention. When people say, as they sometimes do, that my creative work “lacks the weight” they appreciate in my criticism, I need to remind them that art and criticism are different domains, created at different desks in my house and perhaps different parts of my mind. Though I can observe the former, the latter I can’t see. One visible difference is that my criticism, such as this interview, is done initially at a computer while my art is not.

Since we’re talking about the values important in art: tell us about the term “polyartist” and how words are reflected and refracted in the various media in which you work?

“Polyartist” I coined around 1970 as an honorific for people who excelled at two or more nonadjacent arts. The exemplary art hero for me then was L. Moholy-Nagy, whose masterpieces include painting, photography, film, and book design. I later discovered that Moholy was partly Jewish, a Hungarian born with the surname of Weiss.

Thinking precisely about categories, I regard my own activities in various genres not as polyartistry per se, but as writing reflecting polyartistry. Nearly everything of mine in all those media you mention incorporates words or has a literary base of some kind. That’s why I’ve also characterized my work as “expanded writing,” incidentally noting that no one else writes as variously as I have.

Literary friends are often surprised to learn how well my essentially literary work has fared in other art worlds. A traveling retrospective of my art toured several universities in the late 1970s. I have received recognitions with grants and critical appreciations as a composer/radio artist and a visual book-art artist. Indeed, of the ten individual grants to come to me from the NEA, none were in literature.

Tell our readers a bit about your piece Kaddish. You’ve written about how it came into being—the struggle to find funding, interns, waking early to record daveners at morning prayer—but I’d love to hear about what it felt like to work on the piece. How has it changed your relationship with that piece of Jewish liturgy?

If Invocations portrayed similar sounds in prayer language from around the world, the idea informing my Kaddish was a single text, the most poetic in Jewish liturgy, spoken in various ways, in sum acoustically reflecting the Diaspora. Nothing much can be said about it personally. My parents were still alive when it was written, though they’ve died since. Since my essays are often more personal than most, the creative work ends to be impersonal. In an earlier electroacoustic composition, “Praying to the Lords” (1981), I took both the Christian Lord’s Prayer and the Jewish Shema and used multitracking and delay to transform my own reading into choruses of 8, 64, and 512 voices, incidentally introducing the theme, later developed in Invocations, of their sounding alike on ultimate levels.

In the introduction to your Jewish Writings So Far, you write, “What a surprise it was for me to recognize that I’d been writing about Jewish subjects or out of the Jewish tradition for more than four decades.” How did you come to recognize Jewishness, or Judaism, as a recurring theme in your work?

May I hope that the work elaborates an answer better than I could say now? I didn’t intend to write for Jewish magazines, though I have since 1963. Most prose books of mine acknowledge at some point, in some way, that their writer is Jewish.

In general I’ve resisted the notion that just because a work is created by a Jewish author, it is therefore necessarily Jewish. That said, though, a work’s Jewishness needn’t manifest in overt ways. For instance, I see Kafka’s Metamorphosis as an exquisitely Jewish text though the Samsas do not respond to Gregor’s misfortune by calling a rabbi or even citing Torah. So I wonder: would you take a crack at identifying the Jewishness in your work?

As I suggested before, courage, both esthetic and critical, though I suspect that someone else might uncover something else.

You’ve written about your identity as a child of one Ashkenazic parent and one Sephardic parent, and you’ve put forth the notion that Sephardic-American art should be distinctive or unique, as Sephardic-American Jews are distinctive within the larger American Jewish community. Who are the essential Sephardic artists and figures that the American Jewish world should know?

This is uncharted territory. A few years ago, a Southern California writer named Jordan Elgrably, of Moroccan descent, as his surname suggests, started Ivri-NASAW, which is a whopping acronym for New Association of Sephardi/Mizrahi Artists and Writers International. His associate here in New York was Joyce Maio, an Egyptian Jew who grew up in France. Naming me among three honorary fellows, they invited me to write the short memoir about “Sephardic Culture and Me” that many people quote, as you have done.

Recognizing the importance of his Leventine intelligence, Zeek published Elgrably, to its credit. What other Jewish magazine did?

Jordan’s invitation opened me to examine Sephardic-Ashkenazi differences that are felt by everyone moving between both groups, as I have, but few have defined. My own rough sense is that in their culture and their cooking certainly, Greek Jews are more Greek than Jewish. When I’ve gone Greek dancing here, especially at the taverna named Rafina on York Avenue, I’m sometimes asked if I’m Greek. When I reply “Greek-Jewish, grandparents from Smyna,” the reply is, “You’re Greek.”

My favorite test of Sephardic-American literary literacy has become Benjamin de Casseres (1873–1945), a truly eccentric writer whose work had only a small audience in its time and is almost totally forgotten now, not just because his oracular style was so radically different but because he was Jewish when anti-Semitism prevailed and then Sephardic when Ashkenazi writers organized to overcome disadvantage. When you meet people claiming knowledge of Jewish-American literature, test them with Casseres’s name. Try to find any mention of him in histories of Jewish-American literature or his inclusion in any literature anthologies, Jewish or not. The longest introduction to his work known to me appears, where else, on Wikipedia, but the last time I looked the wiki-scribes had hardly addressed the radical quality of his writing or the deviance of his career.

When my grandparents from Smyrna in Asia Minor (not Turkey) first met my Jewish grandparents from St. Petersburg, Russia, in New York City, they spoke French to each other. May I wager that when older Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews from different countries meet each other in America today, some might prefer the lingua franca to English. Don’t ever forget that French preceded English as the language of Jewish trade in much of the Western world.

Are there unique qualities which make Sephardic Jewish art distinctive, and if so, what would you say they are? (This is basically akin to the question of what makes Jewish art distinctive, and may be similarly unanswerable, but I’m interested in your response even so.)

This is a good question that I can’t easily answer. In “Sephardic Culture and Me” I claim a deviance epitomized by the Greek Rembetica single Rosa Esquinazi, whose few surviving records are extraordinary. Hear them if you can. Remember that her popular 1933 song was “Why I Like Cocaine,” that she ran in Athens during World War II a nightclub that must have been protected from the Nazis, and that she wrote in her dotage an autobiography in Greek. Were I a professor with graduate students, I’d love to assign papers on the sculptors Anthony Caro and Mark di Suvero, the memoirist Victor Perera, the painters Amadeo Modigliani and Camille Pissaro, the composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, and then challenge them to find similarities unique to them across the arts. Who knows what they might find. While Jordan’s New Association of Sephardi/Mizrahi Artists and Writers International disappeared, may I venture that a successor will arise and succeed, because it addresses a genuine issue and need?

Richard Kostelanetz

What moves or interests you most about the avant-garde? What does it mean to be part of an artistic avant-garde today?

Simply, I’m most impressed by work that moves radically beyond what I have read or seen or heard before. Since I’ve heard and seen and read a lot, these walls are high. Another measure is that avant-garde work reaches highest recognition well after it was first done or even first appeared. That has certainly happened in my own life. That’s what you’re certifying with this interview. Though many avant-garde artists and writers happen to be Jewish, I doubt if a Jewish avant-garde exists, either aesthetically or politically. Most closest colleagues have not been Jewish and haven’t much thought about Judaism.

I remember that some fifteen years ago an encyclopedia of Jewish writers wanted an article about the Jewish strain in my work. I suggested it to Dick Higgins, my closest professional colleague in the 1980s and 1990s. Because he had a Jewish stepmother and two Jewish sons-in-law, I figured that he must have thought about Jewish particularities, but Dick demurred with the claim that he never thought about it. His daughter Hannah Higgins (Reinstein) recently told me that was probably true. To my mind, the most Jewish qualities of my work are seeing what others don’t, as Jews always have and must, and courage, both esthetic and critical, in the face of disadvantage. The last has always been the Jewish way, or what society demanded of Jews.

Some years ago, when you interviewed scholar of mysticism Gershom Scholem, you asked him about the relevance of his work. I can’t resist asking you the same thing—what do you see as the relevance of your work today?

Scholem impressed me then, as now, as an avant-garde scholar who had clarified a body of Jewish religious literature previously neglected and wrote scholarly books that nobody else could have done. The last remains an ideal for me. To the degree that I’ve created a scholarly field, it would be interarts history, regarding painting, sculpture, music, dance, and even literature existing in the same world and thus spoken about with the same breath.

I’d like to do the book on the Sephardic imagination proposed before, tracing similarities among those figures mentioned before, but now suspect that somebody else could do it better (and I’m loath to do anything that anyone else could do better). From the beginning, I’ve tried to make what would survive and, at least with someone, some of it has. Just last month I received a long email from an English speaker residing in Taiwan, someone I’d not known about before, letting me know how The Theatre of Mixed Means, published over forty years ago now, changed his life. Unsolicited appreciations like that certify immortality.

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