Polyartist: An Interview with Richard Kostelanetz
By Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
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.
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.