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Questioning Alex Dimitrov’s Use of David Wojnarowicz Photo on Cover of Begging for It

By Harriet Staff

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Alex Dimitrov’s new book, Begging for It, came out earlier this year: Just discovered is an open letter from Ted Rees that takes issue with Dimitrov’s cover image, a piece from David Wojnarowicz’s Rimbaud in New York, a series of black-and-white photographs taken from 1978 to 1979. At Harm Massage, Rees’s Tumblr, he writes: “Ignoring the fact that PPOW gallery (which represents Wojnarowicz’s estate) somehow gave you and your publisher permission to use this image, its use still brings up such a multitude of problems that it will be difficult for me to address them all in a simple letter.” But he does make the effort. An excerpt:

…[Y]ou have more than once expressed this sentiment: “I do not care about politics. I care about poetry.” Putting aside the idiotic assumption that the two could ever be separated, the statement speaks to a willful disgengagement with the struggles that many inhabit in the world today, as well as a disregard of those struggles of the past. In almost every way, this mindset is directly oppositional to the spirit and content of Wojnarowicz’s life and work.

As a result, your use of Wojnarowicz’s photograph is, to quote a friend, “one of the most unconscionable appropriations” of another’s artwork that I’ve seen in years. It speaks to a self-importance wrapped in ignorance at best, and a type of colonialism at its worst. Through social and perhaps physical capital, you have acquired an image, totally denuded it of its creator’s political and social intentions, and made it into what you imagine is a reflection, and thereby a representation, of yourself and your work. The act debases Wojnarowicz, whose life was punctuated by poverty, hardship, confusion, and resistance, and whose work attempted to bring attention to how these elements worked on his own life as well as the lives of those around him.

Additionally, to use the image under the title Begging for It is questionable. Wojnarowicz and many of his generation died of AIDS, and as mentioned above, Wojnarowicz is often seen as a representative artist of that generation. Using a term like “begging for it” above a Wojnarowicz image has ghastly implications— many who dismissed the AIDS crisis both then and now say that gay men were “begging” for (and thus deserving of) the disease and its eventual results because of the manner and style in which we interact sexually.

You might say that it’s just an image, that it has more to do with your perceived inheritance of Rimbaud’s poetic estate than Wojnarowicz’s life and œuvre, that it makes sense as a queer denizen of New York City to share some affinity with Wojnarowicz, and that these reasons should be enough justification to use such an image.

These are poor excuses.

The first is a poor excuse because the Rimbaud in New York series is a palpable visual representation of alienation and the conditions in which the ‘outlaw class’ lived at the time.

The second is a poor excuse because Wojnarowicz’s closeness to the work and life of Rimbaud was evocative, placing a symbol of disorder and anarchistic nihilism squarely in a period where such symbols were everywhere, but were widely ignored and feared by the population. Your work has little to do with Rimbaud’s work, from what I can tell, and certainly has nothing to do with a “disordering of the senses” or “tides of flame” marching to war with bourgeois society.

Read the entire letter to Dimitrov here.

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Posted in Poetry News on Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013 by Harriet Staff.