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.