Vanessa Place: Art School Cool Forever?

Which of the following four individuals are racist, everything else being equal:

1). A white man who reviles black men and sleeps with black women.

2). A black man who reviles white men and sleeps with white women.

3). A white lesbian who writes on Facebook that we need to carefully listen to people of color and not let our white background get in the way of understanding what people of color experience every day.

4). A black lesbian who writes on Facebook that white people need to listen carefully to people of color and not let their white background get in the way of understanding what people of color experience every day.

The answer is obvious.  You know the answer, don’t you?

The issue of race is complicated—but not.

Poetry is complicated—until a good poet comes along.

The bad is complicated.

The good is not complicated.

Academics have been talking a lot about race lately—and making it sound extremely complicated—even as they try to make it sound extremely simple: white privilege.

A couple of conceptualist poets—Kenneth Goldsmith and Vanessa Place—used racist material for “art” and the “art” remained stubbornly invisible in the Conceptualist manner, leaving the Conceptualist Poets themselves looking a bit—oops!—racist.

Since every revolution has its purists, looking “a bit” racist can get you in a heap of trouble, and now Vanessa Place and Kenneth Goldsmith, once museum-curator-poet cool, are verging on not being cool.

Conceptualism messed with Ferguson and Gone With The Wind and learned the lesson of the dyer’s hand: like Lady Macbeth, Vanessa Place wishes her hand clean again.

Avant-garde poets sympathetic to Conceptualism, like Ron Silliman, have suddenly been reduced to apologetic whimpering re: the once proud 20th century poetry avant-garde which he and his friends represent (male and white…shhhh).

We at Scarriet have been Silliman’s gentle scold and conscience for quite some time.

Now it’s official:

Quietism 1 Conceptualism 0.

Remember Rita Dove versus Marjorie Perloff?  That seems like a minor dust-up in comparison to what’s occurring now. Or was it? Perhaps it is only possible for the scandalous and the wrong to exist this minute?

The cool-kids-trying-to-be-cool-again are fighting back, of course.

Vanessa Place, who was thrown off a committee because of her insensitivity to racism, may be a beloved martyr tomorrow: who knows?

Her defenders will say: Her hand is not clean, but no one’s is.  Nothing is clean.

We said the complicated is bad, and the simple is good, so here’s the whole Place controversy as simply as we can put it:

Those attacking Place are anti-Racists.

Place is anti-Pro-Racist.

This is like the early stages of the French Revolution: in the ‘race atmosphere’ which exists now, everyone is potentially a saint or a sinner in the blink of an eye.

The possibilities are endless.

Listening to everyone—especially academic poets—discussing race is amazing: talk about twisting oneself in knots.  “Am I good, or am I being too patronizing?”  “Am I being too honest?” “Shall I speak up? And what shall I say?”

Some just want to talk about art. Art, the concept, is the only umbrella that protects. Conceptualism thinks art is a useless concept, which is why the conceptualists feel unprotected and uncomfortable now.

The wheel is turning.

In Silliman’s latest, “Je Sui Vanessa,” Silliman cracks from the pressure of watching his beloved avant-garde  peeps, Goldsmith and Place, become totally uncool.

Silliman equates those attacking Place with hate crime murderers.

When morals are questioned, discomfort results. When cool is questioned, all hell breaks loose.

This is one of those points in history where you feel yourself moving, even as you are standing still.








  1. noochinator said,

    May 23, 2015 at 2:32 pm

    Whether one receives criticism or praise is irrelevant — what matters is the attention, what matters is being talked about. For example, all the recent “bad” press about Hillary Clinton doesn’t hurt her, because she is being kept center-stage. People are talking about her even if they are saying bad things, and people saying bad things is OK because there is always a backlash in sentiment: condemnation today becomes praise tomorrow. History is nothing but a series of backlashes — e.g., in U.S. history almost every elected U.S. President is a backlash to the one who came before….

    • thomasbrady said,

      May 23, 2015 at 3:15 pm

      Good point!

  2. noochinator said,

    May 23, 2015 at 9:21 pm

    BTW, here’s the text of the Silliman entry on Vanessa Place:

    The most important of all rights, the one whose absence sooner or later permits the shutting down of every other one, is the right to blaspheme. Call it “freedom of speech” if you want, but I believe it runs deeper. It is the right not only to “say” — and by that I mean any cultural expression and all of the arts — anything but explicitly the right to offend, to make people crazy (literally) by articulating whatever goes most deeply against their beliefs. Regardless of the lip service given to freedom of expression in many nations, I don’t believe I have ever seen a society that did not have some line that it would not permit an individual to cross. In some nations, this may simply be insulting the head of state, or of religion. In France, you can make fun of Islam, but you cannot deny the holocaust. In the US, you can spend a fortune to deny climate change, but it is different when a white person “performs” racism than when, say, Kara Walker puts its silhouette on a museum wall. We have seen enormous quantities of violence perpetrated against anyone that crosses such a line.

    The Silliman clan was driven out of Lucca centuries ago for denying the omniscience and omnipotence of the Church of Rome. My niece could not marry in her own church as recently as last year because she believes that women have a right to marry women. I was born, as the bionote to this blog concedes, in Pasco, Washington, the site of several recent police shootings. Did I mention that my father was a cop, albeit not there? Or that I’ve largely stopped attending baseball games because I find the displays of national jingoism too disgusting?

    This year we have seen the murders in the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris and we have seen far too many famous cowards protest the giving of an award to the survivors of that attack. They may think they are being “culturally sensitive,” but they are in fact siding with the very same forces that, for example, banned “degenerate works of art” during the Nazi regime. There really is no middle ground. None.

    It is not just that it is a slippery slope: it’s a one-way slide greased straight to the bottom. Anyone who thinks that the ability to prohibit one form of speech is not part of a chain of logic that gets playwrights hung and presidential candidates exiled, arrested or shot is as ignorant of history as Jeb Bush is of science. In Mexico, a mayor did not like the criticism of his administration by students at the local ag college. His wife arranged with the local drug cartel to have 43 of them murdered. I see the hands of those who protested the Charlie Hebdo award from PEN on the very guns aimed at those young men.

    We have, on at least two occasions recently, seen white authors producing works on the subject of race be attacked for their productions. We have seen what amounts to an online lynch mob attempt to prevent Vanessa Place from participating in the planning of events in the AWP. One need not agree with Place or to even think her Gone with the Wind tweets are anything but a klutzy and obvious way to say that, yeah, we are still the nation that enslaved millions and committed an act of genocide on the peoples who lived here before our ancestors arrived with guns. And it is true, certainly, that Place, like Bill Maher, Christopher Hitchens or the satirists at Charlie Hebdo, is someone who compulsively and repeatedly tries to push peoples most sensitive, private buttons, to provoke exactly the thuggish reaction she is now being greeted with. She is after all the American publisher of Urs Allemann’s Babyfucker and the author of Tragodía, a trilogy of works examining — from an appellate perspective — sexual violence. Finally, after multiple attempts to generate this sort of reaction to her work in all its forms, she does seem to have found a group of folks who apparently just fell off a potato truck and played into her hand by petitioning the AWP and revealing themselves to be a mob no better — and hardly any different — from the fascist jackboots tossing books into a bonfire in Prague some 80-odd years ago. As someone whose ancestors did indeed ride on potato trucks, I find their behavior objectionable, thuggish, stupid.

    It is hardly news that writers, as a group, are no better than any other collectivity of human beings. We may sneer at the audience that prefers the lies of Fox News to a more serious consideration of social and political events. But it is tragic that we seem to be just as incapable of thoughtful self-reflection as those who do not profess to value thinking as integral to the human project. Are the signers of the petition to the AWP really that different from the police officer who fired at Michael Brown? If so, it is only in degree, not in kind. In signing, they too have wrapped their own fingers around the trigger of that gun. Either you are shooting Lorca or you are not shooting Lorca, setting fire to Roque Dalton or not setting him ablaze. It is startling just how rapidly seemingly intelligent people, some of them friends, signed up to become part of this mob. And they have Vanessa Place to thank for holding up this mirror to their faces. Here’s hoping they enjoy the view.

    • thomasbrady said,

      May 23, 2015 at 9:54 pm

      Ron, Silly Man.

  3. noochinator said,

    May 24, 2015 at 12:03 pm

    Reb Livingston wrote a great essay recently about online vindictiveness:


    • thomasbrady said,

      May 24, 2015 at 12:36 pm

      Silliman, who banned comments from his blog about 5 years ago, is getting hammered on facebook right now for ‘Je Sui Vanessa.’ 95% of the comments are against his piece—angry, frustrated, disappointed.

      Reb’s piece is heartbreaking. Like Silliman, she has learned a lesson, too.

      Literature is serious business. It’s about the soul of a nation. It’s not about a bunch of friends being nice to each other. A bunch of friends being nice to each other is fine, don’t get me wrong. But that’s NOT what literature is. Literature is where you find out what nice really is, what the soul really is. Reb used the word “asshole” a lot, without saying exactly why these people were “assholes,” and it appears that—in her mind—she has criminalized people who simply saw things differently than she did. A dream became reality for her—in a bad way.

      The only thing any of us can do is: learn from our mistakes.

      Literature is a tricky, tricky business.

  4. thomasbrady said,

    May 24, 2015 at 12:56 pm

    Thomas Graves Conceptualists have no idea what they have walked into, having lived in their avant-garde/theoretical bubble for so long. Shira Erlichman gets it precisely right. Art stripped of context makes for real blindness. The Conceptualist ploy of Goldsmith and Place to cynically insert ‘context’ with a vengeance in the precise way they did in the precise time of current awareness has blown up in their sightless faces. Conceptualism is to blame here. For the answer is yes, to live, not theorize and rationalize. Racism is not to live, but precisely to cynically formulate. First came Nazi theory, then the jack boots. This is not to say we should never theorize, but we should be vigilant against theory sans life.

    Above is a comment of mine on Facebook re: Je Sui Vanessa, just to show those of you who don’t read Facebook what you are missing…!

  5. Dawn Potter said,

    May 24, 2015 at 3:12 pm

    Re these conceptualists: how can anyone be content to produce work that is so excruciatingly dull? When racism is the only interesting thing about the work, then an artist’s got a real problem.

    • thomasbrady said,

      May 24, 2015 at 3:39 pm

      Dawn, exactly.

      Who needs Brahms when you can have a composer who can copy a piece of music they hate in order to announce to the world: “Look, everyone! Hateful music! And I hate it! Because I copied it! Ha ha ha!” And critics praise such efforts as profound ‘conceptualist’ works.

      The stupidity and the mendacity of human beings = infinite.

  6. June 9, 2015 at 2:45 am

    […] Barrett Watten was among the first bloggers to respond to this with perhaps a more moderate position. Others disagreed more sternly. […]

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