I'm always shocked at how narrow the discourse around contemporary writing is as compared to contemporary art. Contemporary art has long staked a space in hybrid practices, ones that are both conceptual and identity-based, ones that at once reify and question notions of identity, destabilizing and deconstructing them in compellingly complicated ways. Think of the practices of Adrian Piper, David Hammons, Jimmy Durham, Kara Walker, Gran Fury, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Martha Rosler, Tania Bruguera, Jayson Musson, Sharon Hayes… the list could go on and on. I can't imagine that any one of these artists would self-identify as "avant-garde" nor do the critical discourses around their work invoke that term. Why does the discourse around contemporary writing still feel the need to cling to binaries like "mainstream" and "avant-garde?" Somehow by upholding such binaries in a critique of binaries only serves to reinforce those same binaries.
Conceptualism was not prescriptive. While the discourse surrounding such a predominant mode of writing appeared hegemonic and canon-building, the writers involved in the movement had no such agenda; ours was a response to technology and offered one way of framing language and its new modes of slippage in a new landscape. As Sol LeWitt so elegantly wrote in 1967, "I do not advocate a conceptual form of art for all artists. I have found that it has worked well for me while other ways have not. It is one way of making art; other ways suit other artists."
The form remains open to reimagination, reinvestigation, and reframing (I'll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women, for example).
In the end, conceptualism was another tool in the writers' toolbox, no more, no less.