Paper for British Association for American Studies Conference 2010: Donald Barthelme and the End of Art

Conference Paper: Donald Barthelme and the End of Art


For those of you who don’t know him, Donald Barthelme was an American fiction writer, born in Texas in 1931, who moved to New York in ‘62 where he began publishing the strange and playful short stories and novels that have earned him the dubious distinction of being hailed by some commentators as the ‘father of American postmodernism’.[1] Going against the grain, then, the purpose of this paper, at its simplest level, is to locate Donald Barthelme, not in relation to a new postmodern aesthetic, but in relation to the end of modernism, the end of modern art. In the process I hope also to caution against an overly affirmative understanding of postmodern art and thought. Whilst I am not, by any means, the first to do this, I think it is fair to say that most existing critical discussions of Donald Barthelme have emphasised in his work what Larry McCaffery has called ‘the primacy of the word’.[2] In fact, this is a persistent analysis not only of Barthelme but also of many of his contemporaries, as well as, arguably, any writer with the misfortune to fall under the epithet ‘metafiction’. The result is an affirmative focus on the ‘free play’ of textual signification, on the reader as a ‘free agent’ able to inhabit and appropriate the text as they please, on the death of grand narratives and all that is monologic. This is one possible reading of Barthelme and his fellow ‘alleged postmodernists’ (Not-Knowing, p.14), but it is one that I find deeply problematic. What this reading elides is not only the context and specificity of his works, but their politics, their anxieties, their ambivalence toward their own possibilities. We should note that Barthelme himself ardently contested the proposition that his writing had, as he put it, ‘turned its back on the world to become in some sense not about the world but about its own processes’. But, at the same time he is a writer sceptical about the political worth of his art. In one story his characters worry that: “Our art contributes nothing to the revolution, we cosmeticize reality” (‘Perpetua’, Sadness, p.38). I will argue, then, that Barthelme is a writer who sets about exploring the politics of form and finds himself confronting the inherited formal and political problems of modernism.


In writing his fiction, then, Barthelme finds himself having to confront, not a legacy of autocratic and repressive realism (as some would have it), but the looming figure of a modernist art that has made a tradition of anti-art; that has pushed this destructive critique to the limits; a modernist tradition that, in a sense, denies postmodern art the right to exist. Furthermore, Barthelme was faced with the contemporaneous efforts to institutionalise this modernist critique, to make it the official language of art. The institution and marketing of abstract expressionism, ‘America’s first home-grown art movement to rate international recognition,’[3] is a case in point. Sometime between 1963 and ’64 Barthelme, as editor of arts journal Location, wrote in complaint to Thomas Hess and Harold Rosenberg (his partners on the magazine), referring to Location’s endorsement of abstract expressionism. He comments:

Most literary-art magazines come into being as the organs of revolutionary parties and see their missions in terms of the promulgation of a radical doctrine. Location enters as an apologist for an existing order. We are not defending a stockade but guarding a bank.[4]

David Harvey also recognises ‘this absorption of a particular kind of modernist aesthetic into official and establishment ideology’, arguing:

It meant, for the first time in the history of modernism, that artistic and cultural as well as ‘progressive’ political revolt had to be directed at a powerful version of modernism itself. Modernism lost its appeal as a revolutionary antidote to some reactionary and ‘traditionalist’ ideology.[5]

In other words, what Barthelme faced, in trying to write fiction in the 1960s, was the looming figure of the End of Art, or more precisely, of the end of modernist art. For implicit in both Barthelme and Harvey’s argument’s is the idea that modernist art becomes reified the moment that it loses its newness. As soon as modernist art becomes an institutionalised style, it ceases to be radical in terms of formal rupture and renewal, becoming instead reproducible, marketable, part of an ‘existing order’. In the process it ceases even to be scandalous, nevermind politically radical. As Rosenberg later put it: “The cultural revolution of the past hundred years has petered out. Only conservatives believe that subversion is still being carried on in the arts and that society is being shaken by it.”[6]

On the other hand, in ‘After Joyce’, an essay first published in the second and last edition of Location, Barthelme raises Joyce as a problem for those writing after him because, as he notes of Finnegans Wake: ‘the book remain[s] always there […] remains problematic, unexhausted’ (‘After Joyce’, Not-knowing, p.4). In other words, for Barthelme, Joyce and the Wake were unsurpassable. As David Gates puts it, “the hell of it was, by the time Barthelme came along, even making it new was getting old.” (‘Introduction’, Sixty Stories, p.xi).


It is worth noting, at this point, that the group most convincingly cited as the last avant-garde, the Situationist International (SI), had already declared art dead three years before Barthelme’s first short story collection was published. In his book on Guy Debord (a key member of the SI), Anselm Jappe explains that for Debord, rather than continuing to produce art, ‘the task ahead was to realize art as “revolutionary praxis”.’[7] As early as August 1961 the Situationist International had passed a resolution that defined ‘the production of any work of art as “anti-situationist.”[8] By 1962, they had expelled or otherwise parted with all of those members who might foremost be called artists. Far from suggesting that the SI was composed of philistines with a Stalinist sense of party discipline, the significance of this is that the SI recognised that in the postwar period, art – specifically that touted as avant-garde – had come to constitute a ‘pseudo avant-garde […] expected to take payment for providing society with the delusion that there is a special kind of cultural freedom’, as they put it.[9] Serge Guilbaut makes a similar point, when he notes that, in the Cold War period, ‘artistic rebellion was transformed into aggressive liberal ideology.’[10] Moreover, for the SI these artists were formally ‘breaking down open doors’.[11] They reached the conclusion that ‘if the avant-garde wishes to put to practical use its conclusions, it finds itself cut-off from all possibilities and sealed-off from society.’[12] In other words, art could not be truly radical whilst it continued to operate in its traditional cultural sphere. In continuing to produce art, even committed artists found themselves only miming a dissent already de-fanged and recuperated by the society of the spectacle. As Situationist Raoul Vaneigem succinctly put it: ‘the point is not to elaborate the spectacle of refusal, but to refuse the spectacle.’[13] Vaneigem continues:

Our position is that of combatants between two worlds – one that we don’t acknowledge, the other that does not yet exist. We have to bring the two together, to hasten the end of a world, the disaster where the situationists will recognize their own.[14]

Vaneigem interprets the End of Art as the necessary surpassing of art as specialized practice in favour of an art reunified with life, and with everyday praxis –  a movement of destruction necessary in order to give rise to a new form of creativity. Although this interpretation of the End remains vague, it has been a persistent and influential figure in art, arguably since Hegel, and continues to be so in the 1960s, when it re-emerges in the thought and practice not only of the Situationists but also of Donald Barthelme.


In ‘After Joyce’, Barthelme argues ‘that with Stein and Joyce the literary work becomes an object in the world rather than a text or commentary upon the world – a crucial change in status’ (Not-knowing, pp.3-4). I would suggest that this early statement is a key to unlocking Barthelme’s works. Language and text become, for Barthelme, ‘material junk’ susceptible to playful reconstruction and reconfiguration – not only by the author, but also by the reader and the critic who, as Barthelme puts it, now encounter the work as they would ‘a rock or refrigerator’ (Not-knowing, p.4).

Perhaps the most extended example of this change in status occurs in Barthelme’s often anthologized short story ‘The Balloon’, which is from his second collection, published in 1968. In the story an enormous balloon, a ‘great vari-shaped mass’ (Unspeakable Practice, Unnatural Acts, p.16) under the control of the narrator and his team of engineers, expands ‘northward all one night, while people are sleeping’ (UP, p.15) until it covers an area of Manhattan ‘forty-five blocks north-south and an irregular area east-west’ (UP, p.16). We are told by the narrator: ‘there were reactions. Some people found the balloon “interesting” (UP, p.16). As such, the story has been understood as a structure in which ‘the balloon as object [is confused with] ‘The Balloon’ as fiction’;[15] as ‘a grotesquely inflated metaphor’[16] for the ‘Barthelme art object’.[17] But, beyond the immediately ‘metafictional’ qualities, several other observations must be made.

A parallel between this text and the early praxis of the Situationists would not be imprecise (although it is not in any way my intention to simply equate the two). Although Barthelme does not directly reference either the Situationists or an American equivalent, a similar context – that of modernist city redevelopment – provokes from both a similar criticism of city space, as well as practices that distort the boundaries between art, sociology, and everyday life. For example, Barthelme’s narrator tells us:

[The] ability of the balloon to shift its shape, to change, was pleasing, especially to people whose lives were rather rigidly patterned, persons to whom change, although desired, was not available. The balloon, for the twenty-two days of its existence, offered the possibility, in its randomness, of mislocation of the self, in contradistinction to the rigid grid of precise, rectangular pathways under our feet. (UP, pp.20-21)

The sudden appearance of the balloon forces the inhabitants of New York (acting as our proxies) to reencounter both city space and art object, in a moment of defamiliarization that challenges inhabitant and reader alike to reconsider the social role and function of art. Beyond this, and echoing the Situationist critique of art, Barthelme imagines in this story an art that would refuse and deflect contemplation in favour of a more active and creative engagement. The narrator tells us:

It was agreed that since the meaning of the balloon could never be known absolutely, extended discussion was pointless, or at least less purposeful than the activities of those who, for example, hung green and blue paper lanterns from the warm gray underside in certain streets, or seized the occasion to write messages on the surface, announcing their availability for the performance of unnatural acts. (UP, pp.16)

However, the story anticipates its own recuperation, prefigured in the interpretation of the balloon object, which comes to be presided over by a series of specialists. Their specialist discourse is parodied in that of the narrator at certain points. For example, he explains that: ‘there was a certain amount of initial argumentation about the “meaning” of the balloon; this subsided, because we have learned not to insist on meanings, and they are rarely even looked for now, except in cases involving the simplest, safest phenomena’ (UP, p.16).  This is later repeated: ‘it was suggested that what was admired about the balloon was finally this: that it was not limited, or defined’ (UP, p.20). Because this readily echoes the critical judgments often levelled at Barthelme’s work, for some commentators it confirms that metafictional works such as  ‘The Balloon’, ‘assimilate all the perspectives of criticism into the fictional process itself’. [18] But, I would argue instead that Barthelme is here treating this interpretation ironically. This is achieved chiefly at the level of tone, but at the conclusion of the story this interpretation is also dramatically undercut, when we are presented with an irreconcilable moment of disruptive irony. Meeting his girlfriend, the narrator explains:

I met you under the balloon, on the occasion of your return from Norway; you asked if it was mine; I said it was. The balloon is a spontaneous autobiographical disclosure, having to do with the unease I felt at your absence, and with sexual deprivation, but now that your visit to Bergen has been terminated, it is no longer necessary or appropriate. (UP, p.21)

I would argue here that Barthelme’s text works to foreground for us the way in which the concept of the ‘open’ text has become a reified figure that, perhaps despite the intentions of its proponents, interpolates specialists and specialist discourse between the reader and text, viewer and artwork, transforming the artwork not into an occasion for free play, but instead into a highly regulated object that we must passively contemplate in silence. The ending of ‘The Balloon’ critiques (perhaps even deconstructs) this ‘openness’, which poses as a final solution, asserting in its place an interpretation of the artwork as a thing expressive of human desires – as well as a thing expressive of human politics. At the same time, however, the narrator’s interpretation is not wholly satisfactory and the meaning of the ‘The Balloon’, remains subject to an ongoing and inexhaustible process. But, this process is a social performance – one constituted through the interaction of different people and discourses.

A question that we find we must answer, then, one which is often elided, is does this extending of an invitation to the reader to be more active or creative in the artistic and interpretive processes actually constitute a genuine political achievement? Is a text like Barthelme’s, which attempts to involve the reader, more democratic? This is certainly an argument that has been repeatedly made, but unfortunately not one that I can find convincing. There are several reasons for this, but my concern here is that the affect attributed to the reader or viewer of the ‘inviting’ work, is a reified affect limited only to the cultural sphere. It is the spectacle of affect in the face of the fact of our lack of political affect in contemporary society. We are allowed ‘free play’ in art, whilst in life we must operate always within bounds set by others. Indeed, to what extent is the play of a disciplined subject free? The End of Art becomes a figure both necessary and unfulfilled. The prerogatives of art are overridden by those of society, making a reunification of art and life impossible except in the debased sense that art appears henceforth as a spectacle. Not only does the society of the spectacle make the political aspirations of art appear ridiculous, but it turns such aspirations into an apology for the system. For this reason, postmodernism appears as a reification of modernism. With reference again to textual ‘openness’ and the apparent ‘free play’ of the reader, at its worst acceptance of this creativity within the bounds of restraint gives way to a facile relativism that finds freedom in constraint, and autonomy in heteronomy. The fact that many cultural critics would find this view reductive only proves the extent to which this logic has been absorbed.  In summary, this is the problem faced by Barthelme and by all artists of the postwar period: art cannot be revolutionary again without a revolution.

(20 mins)

Chris Witter, April 2010

Presented at University of East Anglia, BAAS Conference 2010


[1] See Tacy Daugherty, Hiding Man (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2009).

[2] Larry McCaffery, The Metafictional Muse (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1982), p.152.

[3] ‘Art: American Abstraction Abroad’, Time Magazine (4th Aug, 1958). <,9171,863651,00.html#ixzz0h1lwGLtK&gt; [Accessed: 2nd March 2010]

[4] Quote in: Tacy Daugherty, Hiding Man (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2009), p.226.

[5] David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Blackwell, [1990] 1995), p.37.

[6] Harold Rosenberg, Discovering the Present (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1973), p.ix.

[7] Anselm Jappe, Guy Debord, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Berkley, Los Angles, London: University of California Press, 1999), p.67.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Situationist International, ‘The Avant-garde is Undesirable’, trans. unknown, Internationale Situationniste, 6 (1961), in Situationist Archive, <; [Accessed: 7th March 2010]

[10] Serge Guilbaut, How New York stole the idea of modern art, trans. Albert Goldhammer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), quoted in David Harvey, p.37.

[11] Quoted in Anselm Jappe, Guy Debord, p.56.

[12] Internationale Situationniste, 6 (1961).

[13] SI, ‘The Fifth SI Conference in Göteborg (Excerpts)’, Situationist International Anthology, ed. and trans. Ken Knabb (Berkley: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006), p.115.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Maurice Couturier and Regis Durand, Donald Barthelme (London and New York: Methuen, 1982), p.71.

[16] Richard Schickel, ‘Freaked Out on Barthelme’, The New York Times (16th Aug 1970), p.15.

[17] Tony Hilfer, American Fiction Since 1940 (London and New York: Longman, 1992), p.211.

[18] Robert Scholes, Fabulation and Metafiction (Urbana, Chicago, London: University of Illinois Press, 1979), p.114.


~ by Wit on April 14, 2010.

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