Poetry News

'If you make any kind of art, you might want to read this': A Valuable Response from Marie Buck on Josef Kaplan's 'Theses on the Aesthetics of Violence'

By Harriet Staff

A Better World Is Probable: Detroit-based poet Marie Buck shares a necessary response to Josef Kaplan's "Theses on the Aesthetics of Violence," published at Lana Turner last week and discussed in an interview at ArtTalks, which we mentioned. Lawrence Giffin writes in a Facebook link to Buck's piece:

"If you make any kind of art, you might want to read this. For some it will be a call to political action, for others a call to form a reflexive consciousness of their own art making, for yet others it will free them from the false choice of art/politics, while other will feel able to shrug off the ethical imperatives of past political art or the politics of poetic form, and even for those other than that, something other, etc. Wouldn't it be nice to tarry with the problematic for a bit, and live with these antagonisms instead of trying to escape them or explain them away. It's not a very convincing read of Josef Kaplan's work, but it's definitely more intelligent and more thorough than anything you've ever written. It's also, throughout its polemic, wildly generous in many ways. Someone repost this on their poetry/art blog for crying out loud."

Giffin commented below his post: "And by 'not a very convincing read' I mean 'a totally convincing read.'" For those of you who haven't read the original piece, Buck catches us up quickly:

The manifesto offers a new narrative of gentrification, one in which the (allegedly voluntary) poverty of bohemian poets and artists functions to assure the wealthy that impoverished people enjoy their poverty. Art and poetry “assure the wealthy they will stay that way,” and “residents of low income and working class communities hate poets and artists so much because they know that poets and artists are unwilling, through means other than art, to protect their communities from exploitation.

Buck notes that, in his interview, Kaplan "rejects the 'misguided handwringing' and debate, common in many poetry circles, about the relationship between poetry and politics," and that she agrees, adding that such handwringing is loathsome in the face of actual struggle. Naming "the Arab Spring, Madison, Occupy, protests for Trayvon Martin, the Quebec student strikes, and hundreds of less-visible struggles," Buck makes it clear that a book of poetry--particularly given the time we live in now--could not be mistaken for politics. Buck also takes seriously Kaplan's potentially gestural (yet meant) comment about looting a Foot Locker:

...Kaplan critiques the substitution of (an individualized, ethical-but-not-practical) art for politics, but himself substitutes individualized, ethical-but-not-practical acts for the kinds of collective action that can actually lead to change.

Why not suggest that the reader go to some type of protest or organizing meeting? Or join or start a revolutionary organization, one that attempts to engage large numbers of people? To act collectively, in a way that wins large numbers of people to revolutionary politics through political experience, means that your politics will not be pure—a fact that I think artists and academics tend to balk at. . . .

She also breaks down the anarchist impulse and its connection, as she sees it, to art-making:

In some ways, Kaplan’s examples of revolutionary action—burning shit down, looting Foot Locker, and mugging wealthy people—are dramatic, martyr-producing corollaries to the consumer politics that Kaplan is so critical of. Why do people like the idea that you can change the world by buying organic food at the farmers’ market, or by writing a poem? Because it’s a lifestyle choice you can make alone and about which you can feel ethical. Why “burn shit down”? Because it’s an extremely difficult, self-sacrificial choice you can make alone and about which you can feel ethical. If we actually want to change society, though, we must do the work of acting collectively, and convincing masses of people of the need—and more difficult, the possibility—of revolution. Tough shit, poets. This is not a thing you can do on your own.

"I’ll absolutely argue against the idea that poetry can or should generate a kind of social good – that’s bullshit, and it makes for boring, affirmative, congratulatory poetry," wrote Kaplan. Buck responds:

...Historically, plenty of political art has presented itself, and functioned, not as a substitute for building political power, but as a product of political action. I am thinking particularly of the proletarian novels of 1930s or the poetry of the Black Arts Movement. No doubt, some of this art was shitty and some of it was amazing. But we do not have to make our art purposefully apolitical—though we might, and that’s fine.

What does it mean, in our current moment, to make genuinely political art, art that does not attempt to substitute for building political power, but which is instead a product of political activity, or a means of further political activity or organization? If the feeling is that political art is boring, perhaps we need to make better political art. And we might well be better able to do this in the midst of the current surge in struggle than we have been in the midst of the defeats of the last few decades. In our (understandable) cynicism we have often suggested that aesthetically registering the horrors of capitalism is the best we can do. But what do we do when very large numbers of people are continually more and more certain that capitalism is horrible? If we begin to have a poetry culture in which political action is the politics, rather than art, we will likely produce poems that bear some relationship to political movements and therefore look very different than poems created in the substitutionist mode. What would it be to write poems as support for actual political activity, for instance? Art is not inherently political, but we can make political art, if we want to, by thinking of it in relation to political practice—rather than as a substitute for such activity.

Read the entire piece.

Originally Published: July 10th, 2012