LITERATURE | How one might have lived

Wednesday 9 March 2011

I'm studying the history of modernism in Art History and Contextual Studies at the moment, and I'm (one of the few) finding it fascinating. Looking through my pages of notes is like reading a map of Art and its development over the last three hundred years. It's amazing to see how the styles and movements are interlinked and inspired by the others, learn about the main figures in the art, design and fashion world and how they influenced others and even the work I myself am producing today.

I stumbled across Austin Kleon on one of my internet trawls. I'm not even sure where or how I came across his work, but I'm so glad I did. He is a 'writer who draws': artist, poet and author of 'Newspaper Blackout'. His work reminded me of the literature produced in the movement named 'Dada' that came to the forefront of culture in around 1916 to 1922, during World War One. It began in Zurich, Switzerland, and was primarily a rejection of accepted standards in art up until that time. It was chaotic, anarchist and anti-war - set up to ridicule the modern world's meaninglessness. The movement spanned art, literature, poetry, music and influenced movements such as surrealism, punk rock and pop art.
"Dada is the groundwork to abstract art and sound poetry, a starting point for performance art, a prelude to postmodernism, an influence on pop art, a celebration of antiart to be later embraced for anarcho-political uses in the 1960s and the movement that lay the foundation for Surrealism."
—Marc Lowenthal, translator's introduction to Francis Picabia's I Am a Beautiful Monster: Poetry, Prose, And Provocation
One of the techniques for producing poetry that the 'Dadaists' used was to cut up a newspaper clipping into individual words, rearrange them, pour them out, and stick them down in whichever order they came out. Occasionally connections could be made between the words that made surprising sense, or that 'fit' together well. Kleon also uses newspaper clippings and articles in his poetry. Instead of re-arranging the words, he simply eliminates the text in between the words he chooses to keep in the poem. The technique, coupled with his sharp eye for connections between words and phrases, produces some of the most surprisingly refreshing work that I've seen. It's working backwards at its best; Kleon does it so wonderfully, yet it seems to fail so miserably when I attempt to do it with the development stage of my art... (apparently there is a 'correct' way for artists to work. Who knew?)
His poems are off-kilter, strange, and often slightly nonsensical - but they have a quality to them that makes them so easy to understand and relate to. The strangeness is a part of their beauty. They also have an oddly appealing aesthetic, and although I'm not sure whether this is a factor in the words that he chooses, somehow each of them work as if he'd chosen the placement of the words himself. His book is definitely first on my list of future Amazon purchases.

Check out more of Kleon's work, his blog, more Newspaper Blackouts, buy the book, and see newspaper poetry submitted by the public at

"I’m a visual thinker obsessed with the art of communicating with pictures and words, together."

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