Ekphrastic Conceptualism in Postmodern British and American Novels

Don DeLillo, Paul Auster and Tom McCarthy

by Jarosław Hetman (Author)
©2015 Monographs 238 Pages
Series: Dis/Continuities, Volume 11


The relationship between the arts has fascinated people for centuries. Discussing the ancient notion of ekphrasis, this study examines the interpenetration of literary and non-literary art. Traditionally, ekphrasis is defined as a rhetorical device for the poetic description of a painting or a sculpture that has been steadily gaining attention in literary studies since the mid-twentieth century. Taking a close look at the works of Don DeLillo, Paul Auster and Tom McCarthy, the author demonstrates how ekphrasis is useful for reading contemporary novels that feature non-representative, conceptual works of art.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One: Towards Conceptual Ekphrasis: Evolution of the Term
  • 1. Ekphrasis – the evolution of the term
  • 1.1 Progymnasmata
  • 1.2 Towards a literary term
  • 1.2.1 Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and his Laocoon
  • 1.3 Three contemporary definitions of ekphrasis
  • 1.3.1 Leo Spitzer’s modern use of the term ekphrasis
  • 1.3.2 James A. W. Heffernan and the problem of representation
  • 1.3.3 W. J. T. Mitchell and the contemporary application of ekphrasis
  • Conclusions
  • Chapter Two: Enriching the Novel: Ekphrasis in Don DeLillo’s Prose
  • Introduction
  • 2.1 DeLillo’s work according to criticism and reviews
  • 2.1.1 Critical approaches: from psychoanalysis to gender studies
  • 2.1.2 Thematic scope of DeLillo’s work: an analysis of critical perspectives
  • 2.2 DeLillo’s Works: Conceptual Art and Language
  • 2.3 Perception and Sanctioning (Framing) of DeLillo’s conceptual and literary art
  • 2.4 Aesthetics and anti-aesthetics in DeLillo’s conceptual works of art
  • 2.5 Conceptual art’s difficulty with borders
  • 2.6 An analysis of DeLillo’s conceptual arts
  • 2.6.1 Performance art
  • 2.6.2 Body art
  • 2.6.3 Land art
  • 2.6.4 Video art and/or film
  • 2.6.5 Street art
  • Conclusions
  • Chapter Three: Conceptualizing the Novel: Ekphrasis in Paul Auster’s Poetics
  • Introduction
  • 3.1 Paul Auster’s oeuvre in critical accounts
  • 3.1.1 Critical approaches to Paul Auster’s oeuvre
  • 3.1.2 Auster’s thematic scope outlined in critical accounts
  • Intertextuality
  • Metafiction
  • Language
  • Image
  • The factual and the fictional in Auster’s narrative
  • The act of writing
  • Chance
  • Conclusions
  • 3.2 Conceptual elements in Auster’s poetics
  • 3.2.1 Auster’s conceptual and non-conceptual art
  • Representational works of art
  • Painting
  • Drawing
  • Film
  • Sculpture
  • Conclusions
  • Conceptual Art
  • 3.2.2 Pseudo-artistic activity
  • The art of observation
  • The art of preservation
  • Life as an artistic object. The consequences of framing
  • 3.3 Auster’s engagement in conceptualism
  • 3.3.1 Collaboration with Sophie Calle
  • Conclusions
  • Chapter Four: Tom McCarthy’s Novel as a Conceptual Work of Art
  • Introduction
  • 4.1 McCarthy’s novels in overview
  • 4.2 Tom McCarthy, the writer, the artist, the theorist
  • 4.3 Art and theory in McCarthy’s texts
  • 4.3.1 Art in McCarthy’s novels
  • 4.4 McCarthy’s repetitions
  • 4.4.1 The impossible repetition
  • 4.4.2 The possibilities of failed repetition
  • 4.5 Tom McCarthy and the problem of (in)authenticity
  • 4.5.1 Recreating authenticity
  • 4.5.2 Chancing authenticity
  • 4.5.3 Incorporating authenticity
  • 4.5.4 The problem of authenticity in McCarthy’s other novels
  • 4.6 Tom McCarthy and the omnipresent performativity
  • 4.6.1 Constant performance
  • 4.6.2 Conscious performance
  • Conclusions
  • Conclusions
  • References

“Art cannot be modern. Art is primordially eternal”
Egon Schiele


When in 1913 Marcel Duchamp began developing the idea of what was to become the readymade, he could not have foreseen that his decision to abandon the easel would unravel as the driving force of art in the second part of the twentieth century (Hopkins 2000: 2). His legacy of non-representational art took various forms, until it reached the pinnacle of conceptual art in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Most powerfully confronted in terms art theory by abstract expressionism (Hopkins 2000: 38), it has transformed the way we think about art at the beginning of the twenty-first century. With the rise of conceptualism, galleries and modern art museums have become places which no longer merely exhibit art, but much rather sanction it. Works of art themselves are not anymore identified with canvases or marble structures placed before audiences. Instead, they have adopted an unprecedented multitude of forms in an attempt to convince the viewers that art cannot be reduced to its material manifestation. Hence art emerges as a process, an idea embodied in dynamic creation, or a concept. The variety of forms artistic expression has taken on within the framework of conceptual art has enticed art historians to propose a number of subgenres, though these categories, like conceptualism itself, can only be used as approximations, since conceptual artists continue their efforts to render a strict classification impossible.

Duchamp’s breakthrough has not remained without consequence for other branches of art. In music, John Cage has become the most recognizable representative of the shift in thinking about art that Marcel Duchamp triggered. As Robert Hopkins argues, “[t]he prime mover in disseminating Duchamp’s ideas in America was not the man himself, but John Cage” (2000: 41). Cage has found numerous followers in such composers as Morton Feldman, Christian Wolff, La Monte Thornton Young, or David Tudor. To an even greater extent, however, Duchamp’s stamp can be identified in the complex relationship conceptual art has developed with literature. Although in his essay “Alice’s Head: Reflections on Conceptual Art,” Jack Burnham argues that “[c]onceptual art resembles literature only superficially,” (1999: 216) in the present study I will adopt a contrary point of view, and attempt to show that the resemblance is not superficial, and that ← 9 | 10 → conceptual art is deeply indebted to literature. In order prove to this point, I will resort to the notion of ekphrasis, a literary device whose origins can be traced back to the Antiquity.

In Chapter One, I will outline the history of ekphrasis and show how the term evolved over the centuries it has been in use. Since its introduction into literature through the art of rhetoric, ekphrasis has gained pedigree in oral culture, which, due to the predominance of its subsequent literary uses, is often overlooked. These roots, however, may prove particularly interesting in the context of the way conceptual art is distributed in contemporary culture, a way which uncannily resembles the age-old oral tradition of literature. Ekphrasis was one of the Progymnasmata, i.e. an element of rhetoric education in Ancient Greece and Rome dating back to the first century AD. It consisted in describing vividly not necessarily works of art, but reality in general. The gradual and indirect emergence of ekphrasis as a literary term in the eighteenth century may be seen in the context of rhetoric classes which sought to diversify and develop the evocative potential of language used by students. Describing works of art was believed to be more challenging than giving account of more ordinary material objects. Consciously applied to the field of poetics by Leo Spitzer, ekphrasis initially became identified exclusively with poetic descriptions of paintings and sculptures. It proved successful in revealing new possibilities for interpretation, as can be inferred from Spitzer’s reading of Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn. Subsequently, its interpretive scope was gradually broadened in the writings of James A.W. Heffernan and W.J.T. Mitchell.

In the present study, I would like to build upon the findings of the aforementioned academics and to examine the potential of ekphrasis in analyses of recent literary works. Conceptual art is strictly non-representative, which renders it seemingly unsuitable for analysis through such categories as enargeia, i.e. the Ancient term for vividness of description. By differentiating between the work itself and its material manifestation, I will argue that a trace of the artwork’s material existence, such as a documentation, may prove sufficient to adequately reveal its conceptual dimension. Furthermore, in my argument, I would like to show that Duchamp’s leap forward would not have been possible if it had not been for certain developments in those art forms that are conventionally classified as strictly representative. In order to claim that it is possible to apply ekphrasis, conventionally associated with poetry and painting, to prose and conceptual art, I will discuss the argument made by James A.W. Heffernan. My reading of his study discussing twentieth-century ekphrastic poetry will show that in the eyes of contemporary poets, such as W.H. Auden, William Carlos Williams and ← 10 | 11 → John Ashbery, canonical paintings from the sixteenth century display significant conceptual qualities which can be identified universally in poetry, prose, representational and conceptual art. Looking at the history of art as a continuum facilitates and justifies the broadening the definition of ekphrasis, for as Chapter One shows, ekphrasis has been evolving together with the evolution of art.

I have decided to focus on the novel as my primary object of analysis because of its inclusiveness, a capacity to accommodate a variety of subgenres. Postmodern novels in particular can be characterized by their taste for generic variety, which is a quality they share with the works of conceptual artists. I have chosen to analyze the novels of Don DeLillo (b. 1936), Paul Auster (b. 1947) and Tom McCarthy (b. 1969) to show that the notion of ekphrasis is dynamic, it changes with the development of postmodernist literature. My selection aims to display the growing proximity between literature and conceptual art to a point where the two domains nearly intersect. All of the three authors utilize ekphrasis in a slightly different way, though their reflections can be placed within the broad field of postmodernist thought. The postmodernist cultural context, as I will attempt to show, is fertile for a more liberal application of ekphrasis. It is hospitable to cross-generic considerations and it is known to have provided the theoretical foundations for conceptual art.

I have chosen DeLillo as the subject of my study because he is one of the most significant representatives of postmodernist literature and often incorporates contemporary works of art in his novels. I would like to argue that Don DeLillo’s oeuvre illustrates the diversity of conceptualist forms and their uniqueness among other, non-conceptual twentieth-century art. A reading of his novels will also help me, much in the spirit of Spitzer’s essay1, to show that using the category of ekphrasis in a wider context is beneficial to the reception of his works as it exposes obscure aesthetic qualities and less evident possibilities for interpretation. Moreover, DeLillo’s novels exemplify the characteristic features of performance art, body art, video art and street art and help explain the blurred divisions within conceptual art. Furthermore, DeLillo’s ekphraseis locate Duchamp’s legacy between two other key figures on the twentieth-century art scene, Andy Warhol and Mark Rothko. All of the abovementioned artists have affected postmodern culture deeply, and traces of their accomplishments can be found also in twentieth and twenty-first-century literature. ← 11 | 12 →

In order to discuss the mechanics of DeLillo’s ekphrasis, I will introduce the term of framing, which simultaneously corresponds to Duchamp’s artistic gesture of appointing art, and expresses a shift in sanctioning artistic objects from the artist as an individual to the artist as an institution, and ultimately, to the audience. Framing implies that is it possible to approach any element of reality as if it were a piece of art and subject it to interpretation. DeLillo’s studious attitude to problems of linguistics is also helpful in analyzing conceptual art, which pays unprecedented attention to the word, as Tony Godfrey observes exemplifying his claim with conceptualist enterprises that dwell on the word (1997: 10) and echoing Duchamp’s claim: “we think in words and images, not in paint” (qtd. in Godfrey 1997: 27). According to Godfrey, conceptual art adopts a highly critical perspective on language, which is exemplified by Mel Brochner, who in 1970 wrote in chalk on a wall: “Language is not transparent” (1997: 350). This statement corresponds with DeLillo’s writing.

Analyzing the category of ekphrasis with reference to novels requires a redefinition of the term. In an ekphrastic poem, the depiction of an artwork, in the vast majority of cases, fills the entire work of art. In a novel, an ekphrastic passage comprises a fraction of the text, and often novels contain several such passages. As can be observed in DeLillo’s fiction, the choice of art objects included in a piece of long prose is validated by their consistency with the plot. As a result, works of art play a subordinate role in extensive narratives. In the case of DeLillo, I will show how ekphrastic passages reinforce the plot, provide it with a richness of perspectives and render it more vivid to the reader. DeLillo’s use of ekphrasis, however, is limited as the properties of the works of art he depicts in his novels do not affect his writing. Although Don DeLillo is widely considered a postmodernist author (though scholars like Philip Nel argue to the contrary), and conceptual art is viewed as distinctly postmodern (Hopkins 2000: 2), there is little stylistic interpenetration on the pages of DeLillo’s novels. The writer neither resorts to conceptualist means of expression, nor marks his notional ekphraseis, that is ekphraseis of works that do not exist outside of the text, with traits of his own style. The works that are presented ekphrastically on the pages of his novels reveal that DeLillo is more of a careful observer of conceptual art than a conceptual author, as opposed to Paul Auster.

The books of Paul Auster, DeLillo’s younger colleague and close friend discussed in Chapter Three, do interact with conceptual art, as Auster attempts to speak a language akin to the language of conceptualists. Critical accounts of Auster’s novels emphasize those features that render him an exemplary figure of American postmodernism as they enumerate qualities that are, incidentally, also ← 12 | 13 → characteristic of conceptualism. His oeuvre is thematically consistent with the theoretical preoccupations displayed by conceptual artists. What is more, Auster also includes conceptual artists as his characters, and many of his characters, though not labeled as artists, have qualities that are frequently mentioned in DeLillo’s descriptions of conceptual art. The fact that many of Auster’s characters resemble conceptual artists is meaningful, as I will argue in Chapter Three. He thus shows that art is sanctioned in an arbitrary way by institutions, while any individual has the capacity to frame, i.e. to privately perceive an action, or a selected fragment of reality as artistic.

Paul Auster has been selected to be discussed in this study because of his direct engagement with conceptual art. He is known to have collaborated with a prominent French artist, Sophie Calle. Although much of their early cooperation is thought to be an informal trading of views and opinions, in the 1990s the two were involved in an interesting artistic exchange. Firstly, in 1992 Auster fictionalized Calle in his novel Leviathan, wherein he provided an insightful literary interpretation of Calle’s performances, and arguably, outlined the potential pitfalls conceptual art may pose to contemporary culture. The artistic career of Maria Turner, Calle’s literary double in Leviathan is complemented with performances of Auster’s own invention, to which Calle responded in 1997 and 1998 by carrying out the projects of Auster’s devising. In 2000 she published Double Game, an art book that documents the collaboration, wherein Calle describes the process of turning her into a fictional character by Auster, her attempt to embody that character, and the third and concluding part of their exchange, “The Gotham Handbook.” Initially invented as a project consisting in Auster “writing a script” for up to a year of Calle’s life, it eventually takes that form of Auster’s “Personal Instructions for SC on How to Improve Life in New York,” and an account of the conceptualist response to the instruction. The partial failure of the project will help to outline the potential problem areas in the relationship between literature and conceptual art. Moreover, by comparing the two fields of artistic creativity I will attempt to show the potential advantages Auster’s writing has over Calle’s performance art.

Chapter Four of this study focuses on a work of art that initially was recognized as a conceptualist project, and only eventually came to be known as a novel. Tom McCarthy’s Remainder was first published by Metronome Press in 2005 as a work of conceptual art, and distributed through a network of art galleries. The peculiar publication circumstances resulted from the lack of recognition for McCarthy among literary publishing houses, but they can also give rise to a reflection on the proximity between literature and conceptual art. I have chosen ← 13 | 14 → to discuss the work of Tom McCarthy because in addition to the publication history, the author remains active simultaneously as a writer and as a conceptualist. Since the critical success of Remainder, he has published two other novels and is currently working on a fourth, while serving as General Secretary for the International Necronautical Society, a conceptualist ensemble which brings together artists and theorists who explore the theme of death.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (August)
Literary theory Metafiction Poetics Intertextuality
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 238 pp., 16 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Jarosław Hetman (Author)

Jarosław Hetman is Lecturer at the Department of English, Nicolaus Copernicus University, Toruń (Poland). His academic interests include contemporary American literature, theory of literature and conceptual art.


Title: Ekphrastic Conceptualism in Postmodern British and American Novels