In the LA Review of Books, Chris Chen and Tim Kreiner consider the controversy surrounding conceptual poets Kenneth Goldsmith and Vanessa Place, whose recent poetic projects have been called racist by some, and anti-racist by others. Chen and Kreiner argue that the poets' defenders rely on an ahistorical and simplistic notion of free speech. Here's a snippet:
For a broader public unfamiliar with longstanding debates about the racial politics of modern and contemporary avant-garde and experimental poetry, the sheer volume of continuing commentary provoked by these projects might seem puzzling. Two recent articles — in The New Yorker and the online academic journal nonsite.org — demonstrate just how polarizing these projects remain. They also demonstrate how techniques of literary appropriation lead to contentious, and some would argue largely unrelated conversations about racism and free speech. This is a controversy long in the making, as the relation between literary form and racial “content” has haunted the history of aesthetic innovation from early 20th century Anglo-American high modernist poetry through contemporary US poetic avant-gardes.
As key theorists of a contemporary literary movement called Conceptual poetry, Place and Goldsmith remain committed to the practice of recycling and sculpting texts, using techniques and procedures inspired by earlier avant-garde artists and writers from Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, and Sherri Levine, to the network of writers associated with the Oulipo group. While Place’s interest in historical reenactments of the minstrel tradition and “coon songs” isn’t limited to Gone With the Wind, the poet began to retweet the entirety of Mitchell’s novel beginning in 2009. Both Goldsmith’s reading of one of Brown’s autopsy reports at Brown University, and Place’s ongoing Twitter and associated performance projects, have a triggered an avalanche of criticism, far from coincidentally in the midst of a national mobilization in defense of black lives. There has been no shortage of high profile public defenses in mainstream media of Kenneth Goldsmith. The above-mentioned support for Place’s and Goldsmith’s projects have been quick to invoke the intrinsic, one could say procedural, value of free speech protections and the defamiliarizing power of avant-garde literary techniques. And yet both the projects themselves and the defenses on offer reproduce and reinforce a longstanding binary opposition between aesthetic form and race understood as sociological or anthropological “content.” In fact in “Authenticity Obsession, or Conceptualism as Minstrel Show,” the poet Ken Chen argues that Goldsmith’s and Place’s recent projects reproduce the anthropological framing of racially “authentic” folk cultures in so-called “human zoos” and ethnological showcases in 19th and early 20th century museums and world fairs.
Image of Kenneth Goldsmith via openculture.com.