Poet Kenneth Goldsmith explains how "dumb" culture is actually really smart, and allows us to embrace the messiness of contradiction and revel in the beauty of the ridiculously obvious.
I am a dumb writer, perhaps one of the dumbest that’s ever lived. Whenever I have an idea, I question myself whether it is sufficiently dumb. I ask myself, is it possible that this, in any way, could be considered smart? If the answer is no, I proceed. I don’t write anything new or original. I copy pre-existing texts and move information from one place to another. A child could do what I do, but wouldn’t dare to for fear of being called stupid.
I recently was in a public conversation with my dear friend Christian Bök. If I am the dumbest poet that’s ever lived, then Christian is the smartest. His projects are very complicated, taking years to complete. During our talk, Christian went on at length about a project he’s been working on for the past decade, one which involved basically giving himself a Ph.D. in genetics. In order to compose two little poems, he had to learn to write computer programs which went through something like eight million combinations of possible letters before hitting on the right ones. And then he injected these poems into a strand of DNA, which was ultimately designed to outlive the extinguishing of the sun. The whole thing involves working with laboratories and has cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Christian is super-articulate—really more like a robot than a person—and had the audience’s heads spinning. When it came my turn to speak, all I could muster was: “… and I transcribe traffic reports.”
Christian and I deeply admire each other’s practices, but the truth is that while he easily could do what I do, I could never do what he does.
Christian is smart. Smart is a star student, flawlessly dotting i’s and crossing t’s. Arriving well-prepared and executing tasks with machinic precision, smart has studied its history and is ready to wrestle with the canon. Cultivating circumscription, smart’s eyes never leave the prize. Smart is an over-achieving athlete, accomplishing things that mere mortals can only dream of. Complex and deep, exclusive and elite, smart brims with value. Having sweated for what it’s accomplished, smart pays a handsome dividend to those invested. Smart moves ever-forward. But by playing a high stakes game, smart is always paranoid that it might lose hard-won ground. Smart is always looking over its shoulder. Success or failure, win or lose, smart trades in binaries. Smart is exhausting—and exhausted.
I am dumb. Dumb is an ill-prepared slacker, riding on hunches and intuition. Willfully amnesiac—History, what’s that?—dumb is a tabula rasa, full of emptiness. Caring little for progress or narrative, dumb moves laterally, occasionally spiraling back in on itself. Dumb loves easy. Eschewing climaxes and crescendos, dumb favors stasis, grids, and predictable systems simply because they require less effort. Similarly, dumb favors re—recontextualization, reframing, redoing, remixing, recycling—rather than having to go through the effort of creating something from scratch. Dumb embraces the messiness of contradiction and revels in the beauty of the ridiculously obvious. Trading on the mundane and common, dumb plays a low-stakes game. Since dumb has nothing to lose, dumb owes nothing to anyone, and in that way it is free.
Smart struts. Dumb stumbles. Smart dazzles. Dumb numbs.
There is dumb dumb and there is smart dumb. There is also smart smart. Dumb dumb is plain dumb and smart smart is plain smart. Smart dumb rejects both smart smart and dumb dumb, choosing instead to walk a tightrope between the two. Smart dumb is incisive and precise. In order to be smart dumb, you have to be really smart, but not in the smart smart way.
Dumb dumb is rednecks and racists, football hooligans, gum-snapping marketing girls, and thick-necked office boys. Dumb dumb is Microsoft, Disney, and Spielberg. Smart smart is TED talks, think tanks, NPR News, Ivy League universities, the New Yorker, and expensive five-star restaurants. By trying so hard, smart smart really misses the point. Smart dumb is The Fugs, punk rock, art schools, Gertrude Stein, Vito Acconci, Marcel Duchamp, Samuel Beckett, Seth Price, Tao Lin, Martin Margiela, Mike Kelley, and Sofia Coppola. Smart dumb plays at being dumb dumb but knows better.
Variants of smart dumb also miss the point but in a different way. Twee (McSweeney’s, Miranda July, Ira Glass, David Byrne) feigns dumb but won’t allow itself to be dumb, for fear that someone might actually think it’s dumb, god forbid. Hipster appropriates chunks of dumb (trucker hats, facial hair, tattoos) but as a fashion trend, refuses to theorize its dumbness, thereby falling squarely into dumb dumb. Smart dumb refuses to commit to either one state or the other. Smart dumb, for instance, incorporates elements of camp but refuses to be camp enough to actually be camp. Dumb vs. smart is not a rehash of hip vs. square. Dumb is both hip and square. Smart dumb has its theorists—de Certeau, Goffman, Debord—those who articulate the mysteries of the mundane and the extraordinariness of the everyday.
From this point forth, unless specified, when I say dumb, I will mean smart dumb.
Dumb breaks things, doing things to things which common sense decrees to be simply wrong. When something is that wrong or that broken, it finds a new life: Thelonious Monk intentionally hitting the wrong notes on the piano, Charles Ives’ use of microtones and overtones, Andy Warhol’s off-register silkscreens. Warhol, the king of dumb, summed it up when he said, “I wanted to do a ‘bad book,’ just the way I’d done ‘bad movies’ and ‘bad art,’ because when you do something exactly wrong, you always turn up something.” Empire is dumb. Really dumb.
Dumb shuns allusion and metaphor, opting instead for the flattest interpretation possible, echoing Beckett’s claim, “No symbols where none intended.” Smart dismisses dumb as the handiwork of charlatans—as hoaxes, jokes, frauds, and leg-pulls. Dumb, in turn, taunts smart with intentional misinterpretation, like John Cage’s first-ever staging of a 12-hour performance of Erik Satie’s “Vexations”—a scribble on a piece of paper from 1893 that gave instructions for it to be played 840 times—something smart historians had dismissed as a joke for over half a century. But when Cage actualized it, it was so dumb that it became cosmic. It has been played frequently and regularly since then. Cage’s 4’33” is even dumber. Anyone could do that. When asked, Cage always said that was the hardest piece he ever composed, taking years for him to summon the courage to write and have it performed.
Dumb came of age in the ’60s with the advent of drugs which magnified minutiae that was previously invisible. Just think of that poor spider in Life magazine who was dosed with LSD: his web moved from smart symmetry to dumb anarchy. Overnight, obsessions with micro movement, structure, and language spawned successive dumb art movements: Judson Church dance, Pop, Fluxus, minimalism, and conceptualism—all based on the over-obvious. Counting and repetition, along with similar childlike activities, came into vogue. By the ’70s, outsider art and mental illnesses such as autism were fetishized by the likes of Robert Wilson; there was a headlong rush to get dumber. The ’70s also saw renewed interest in the work of Gertrude Stein, a seminally dumb writer who embraced dumb decades before anyone. Stein wrote gibberish using a third-grade vocabulary. To the uninitiated, it all seemed foolish. Someone walking across a stage and calling that a dance? How dumb.
Dumb likes to play dumb. Warhol would often say to people, “I’m so empty today. I can’t think of any ideas. Can you give me some?” He would then pretend to listen carefully, ultimately rejecting every idea that was given to him. That’s what made Warhol so great: he wouldn’t take other people’s dumb ideas. He had his own dumb ideas which were really much smarter. When dumb tries to be smart, you get Billy Idol. Or Rod Stewart. In order for dumb to work, it has to stay dumb. But staying dumb is hard work—even harder work than staying smart. With a bit of effort, anyone can get smarter; but few can consciously and continually stay dumb.
Dumb doesn’t go out of fashion because it is never in fashion. Dumb is stalled and irredeemable. It’s too twisted, too weird, too contradictory and takes too many turns of thought to be reduced to a slogan or ad campaign. No matter how dumb they may appear, ad campaigns are invested in being smart; at the end of the day, you need to communicate smartly in order to get someone to buy something. Dumb muddies the waters. Likewise, juries and prizes don’t recognize dumb. Juries and prizes were invented to award smart.
Dumb is not an inborn condition. You get to dumb after going through smart. Smart is stupid because it stops at smart. Smart is a phase. Dumb is post-smart. Smart is finite, well-trod, formulaic, known. The world runs on smart. It’s clearly not working. I want to live in a world where the smartest thing you can do is the dumbest. I want to live in a world where a fluorescent tube leaned up against a wall is worth a million dollars. Or where a plumbing fixture on a pedestal is considered the most important art work of the century. Or where building an eternally locked Prada store in a vast expanse of empty Texas desert is considered a stroke of genius. Or where all of the numbers from one to a thousand can simply be classified by alphabetical order and published as a poem. Effortless and easy, dumb is free of failure, an infallible world where the best result is the one you happen to get.
Kenneth Goldsmith is the Museum of Modern Art’s first poet laureate, and he is the founding editor of UbuWeb, a vast online archive of avant-garde media that he started in 1996. Reprinted from The Awl (July 23, 2013), a current events and culture website based in New York City.