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Postscript: on Some Responses to “Would Vanessa Place Be a Better Poet if She Had Better Opinions?”

Many people read “Would Vanessa Place Be a Better Poet If She Had Better Opinions?”, and many responded. My intention in this brief postscript is not to respond to all of the responses. I only want to reiterate a point from my original essay that has either been overlooked or misunderstood.

One example of the misunderstanding is the otherwise excellent essay “Free Speech, Minstrelsy, and the Avant-Garde” by Chris Chen and Tim Kreiner:

While the poet Aaron Kunin’s recent reading of Place’s Gone With the Wind project finds these appropriation strategies limited, he continues to reinforce the conceptual binary upon which these projects depend. He affirms the political value of an antiracist poetics while at the same time maintaining a traditional conception of aesthetic value completely opposed to political instrumentalization. To denounce Place’s writing for “ideological reasons,” according to Kunin, is tantamount to rejecting the “foundations of aesthetic value.” But nevertheless an innovative and original antiracist poetics “might not only use racist language and imagery, but might also express racist attitudes.” In negotiating these paradoxes, race remains a matter of ideological content for Kunin, opposed to the domain of the aesthetic, here defined as a form or frame “separating images from the things they represent.”

Chen and Kreiner are absolutely right to say that I maintain “a traditional conception of aesthetic value completely opposed to political instrumentalization.” It’s true—I think that the political instrumentalization of poetry is at best extraordinarily rare. If a poem’s value depended on its acting successfully as a political tool, then most poetry would have no value at all.

The authors are understandably puzzled by what they view as my self-contradictory affirmation “of the political value of an antiracist poetics.” That would indeed be a strange position—if I held it. Instead I would affirm the poetic value of a good poem (regardless of its political argument) and the political value of an antiracist policy such as disarming the police. For me, antiracist poetics means aestheticized antiracism.

Chen and Kreiner are making a mistake when they say that my argument opposes form and content. My argument depends instead on the difference between art and life. The opposition between form and content is not coextensive with the difference between art and life insofar as form and content are both aspects of a work of art. When I say that a work of art aestheticizes whatever it depicts, including antiracism, I mean that content belongs irreducibly to art. What makes imaginative content inextricable from form is the wholeness of the work of art and its separation from the world.

Everyone involved in this discussion appears to live by the difference between art and life. To my knowledge, no one has suggested that Gone with the Wind is something other than a novel or that Tweeting Gone with the Wind is something other than a work of art. (No reader misrecognized it as a different kind of Twitter account – for example, a moment by moment record of the passing thoughts of Vanessa Place). Nor has anyone started a liberation movement to protect the rights or advance the interests of fictional persons.

However, in the conclusion of my essay, I am highlighting another implication of my argument. I am affirming the poetic value of good poems that espouse racism. That’s right. Good poetry that has bad ideas about race. Does that sound like a paradox? It shouldn’t. It would be a paradox only if you believe that value in poetry comes from politics.

Here is the passage in question: “To be perfectly clear, I am saying that great poetry might not only use racist language and imagery, but also might express racist attitudes.” (As you can see, I was making a conscious effort to write clearly, which makes my failure to communicate all the more frustrating.) In my essay, I used Whitman’s poetry as an example of great poetry that sometimes advocates racist policies. Since this point seems difficult to grasp, let me borrow an example from another one of my interlocutors.

Lucas de Lima has been active in discussions of racism in poetry and publishing. He has argued in various ways that art takes its value from the intensity of its commitment to decolonization. (See, for example, his contribution to this forum at the Poetry Foundation website). However, in an interview about his visionary poem Wet Land, de Lima makes a case for aesthetic value in the absence of any political commitment:

WL [Wet Land] also owes much to (un)holy art like Robert Crumb’s Book of Genesis. Here you have this outrageous, irreverent cartoonist representing the Bible in a fairly straightforward way. Crumb himself said he couldn’t help but honor the sacredness. At the same time, the women he draws are shockingly voluptuous, the sex and violence totally explicit. This collapse of the sacred and profane was the engine for all the stylistic ones in WL, the high and low, the intellectual and sensational. Our cartoonish crusade—image-moist as it is—says these binaries are false to begin with.

Crumb is an interesting example for this discussion because his art gives a prominent place to racist images. He does not merely reproduce images of racist stereotypes; he actually creates new ones. His most infamous creation derived from minstrelsy is a cartoon character named Angelfood McSpade. The images in Genesis may appear relatively restrained, but, as de Lima says, Crumb remains profane in sensibility even when telling sacred stories. I don’t think there can be any question that Genesis objectifies characters such as Hagar, Simeon, Levi, and the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah, in the form of cartoon stereotypes of Africans and Jews.

Note that Crumb does not seem to have any interest in the potential critical power of these images. In fact, he professes absolutely zero commitment to an antiracist agenda. He might sometimes offer the self-critique that he creates racist images to exorcise personal demons. A pure product of the counter-culture of the 1960s, he might also say that minstrelsy—like the records he collects by black American musicians playing in an old-timey style—is a more authentic form of expression than the mass culture that he despises. Mostly, though, Crumb creates these images because, as with most of his personal obsessions, he aestheticizes and eroticizes them. He likes the way they look.

So does de Lima. I am a little surprised to discover that I agree with him. Crumb’s images have value as art, and part of their value is the quality that de Lima calls outrageousness. De Lima may be even more surprised to find himself agreeing with me that the judgment that these images are offensive can be separated from aesthetic judgment. Crumb himself provides a model for this separation when he says that he, an unbeliever, appreciates the “inspired work” of the Torah as an aesthetic object, and adapts it into comic book form on that basis.

De Lima calls Crumb a great artist despite the objectionable use of racist stereotypes. Should de Lima decolonize his mind and dissociate himself from Crumb? Should museums and libraries deaccession Crumb’s work from their collections? My point is just the opposite. De Lima ignores Crumb’s subject position, ignores his professed opinions, ignores his use of offensive stereotypes, and identifies with him as an artist. Crumb and de Lima might have different politics—their views on racism might be exactly opposed—but nonetheless de Lima says that Crumb’s work is useful to him. I think he is right to use it.

Some readers will say that de Lima and I are wrong to separate values in art and politics. Perhaps we are wrong. Nonetheless we do it. If you care about art, I am willing to bet that you do the same thing. Everyone who loves art loves some works of evil opinion. Everyone who loves art loves some works made by artists with whom they strongly disagree and of whose lives and careers they disapprove.

When you try to derive the values in art from politics, the first thing you do is to cut yourself off from most of the history of art, since, from a contemporary antiracist perspective, most artists and writers of the past made work with bad ideas about race. Under those conditions, I do not see how the work we do as artists could be expected to last for more than ten years. In that time, the concerns that now obsess us will start to seem irrelevant, our old ideas will seem wrong, and the language we use to discuss them will seem offensive. We can only fail by staking the value of the art we make on the rightness of our opinions or the nobility of our political convictions. We justify our work by making better art.

Yes, but, some readers will say, that only applies to good art. Maybe only good artists should be allowed to tackle serious subjects such as racism. The rest of us can work with trivial subjects. The question is, which are the trivial subjects, and which are the serious ones? There seems to be no consensus. And how do the bad artists know they are making bad art (since presumably their ambition is not to make bad art)? There is no consensus here either. But if they knew they were making bad art, that knowledge might help them to do better.



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