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Ekphrastic Conceptualism in Postmodern British and American Novels

Don DeLillo, Paul Auster and Tom McCarthy

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Jarosław Hetman

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.
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Introduction

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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...

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