Language Games, or, Making Fun of Books
The supposedly earnest form of the book also served as occasion for artists to ridicule austere forms of traditional artistic practice and high culture. These artists’ books radically reject any expectation of being respectable, sensible, intelligent, or “bookish,” in favor of exploring those aspects of experience that books, and the cultural forms they represent, have typically forgotten or disparaged. Presented as games and exercises, these books seem to take to heart Karl Gerstner’s system for writing, which instructs its “literate” students: “By ‘play’ is meant: using writing as material for fun.”
Marcel Duchamp set an important precedent for this kind of playful ridicule of traditional institutions. His use of ready-made materials questioned how expertise and individuality inform the definition of the artist, and his works often irritate boundaries between vision, language, and cognition, inviting hyper-reflexive and conceptual reception. Richard Hamilton’s faithful typo-transcription of Duchamp’s Green Box shows the games Duchamp played drawing on “abstract” words, those that lack “concrete reference,” from the Larousse dictionary. Dieter Roth’s Mundunculum is another “transcription” of the Green Box, although it is as if he has executed Duchamp’s instructions in order to design a new system of signs, printed in the book in arresting arrays with his hand-made stamps.
The same suspicion of abstraction is at stake in Robert Fillou’s Ample Food for Stupid Thought, which in fact poses a series of “stupid” questions that in their simplicity seem impossible to answer: “What should you do about love?” “What century should you have lived in?” “What do you laugh at?”
A book that incites its reader to have some fun with reading in an especially undogmatic way is André Thomkins’ Dogmat Mot, which includes words in French, German, English, and “nonsense” on pinwheels. These can be spun to generate texts that simulate the production of significance and meaning along multiple axes—without actually arriving at any.