Any Art You Make Can and Will Be Used Against You

Two NYPD officers skirmish with a group, allegedly including Eric Linsker, on the Brooklyn Bridge on December 13 (screenshot of YouTube video)
Two NYPD officers skirmish with a group of protesters, allegedly including Eric Linsker, on the Brooklyn Bridge on December 13 (screenshot from YouTube video).

Of the 331 people arrested amid last week’s massive New York protests, one is an especially unlikely suspect: Eric Linsker, a poet and adjunct writing professor at the City University of New York. Although poets, typically a timid bunch, are rarely the perpetrators of revolutionary violence, Linsker is alleged to have thrown a trashcan onto police officers marching along the roadway of the Brooklyn Bridge.

A fixture of the Brooklyn literary scene, Linsker writes poetry with leftist undertones — and, sometimes, overtones. Almost all of the news outlets reporting on his arrest reference a poem titled “Thwaite” that he published in Adult Magazine, which contains the line “fuck the police.” The full stanza reads: “To triple that/Irreversible retreat/Into summer slow motion/By an intensification/Of the powerful/To Isolate the surface/Adding energy to winds/Future governments/Spend to protect/Fuck the police/To rise as you/Disappear below current/Interpretations of observations/Fuck the police.”

The ubiquitous allusions to the provocative “fuck the police” line, which appear everywhere from the Wall Street Journal to Gothamist, suggest that Linsker’s poetry may be evidence of his guilt. But it’s far from clear that the content of a writer’s work is a direct reflection of his or her morals, much less his or her motivations for action. The inclusion of this poem excerpt by so many news outlets raises questions about the relationship between an artist’s work and her or his biography: to what degree is an artist’s creative output proof of her or his actual convictions? Does an artwork recounting a particular crime necessarily incriminate its maker?

The Linsker incident, with all its philosophical implications, harks back to a bizarre crime that took place in Poland in 2000 — a grizzly murder eventually attributed to a philosopher-cum-novelist whose “fictional” magnum opus is narrated by a killer. This case, painstakingly documented in a deeply reported New Yorker piece, has less in common with O.J Simpson’s If I Did It and more in common with Eric Linsker’s poetry. Like Linsker’s work, the novel in question is ambiguous — more an art object than a confession, inflected with all the nuance and uncertainty that we’ve come to expect from postmodern artifacts. Similar issues arose with the publication of Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel about a pedophile. The work’s subject matter prompted unsavory speculation as to Nabokov’s own behavior. But as any careful reader of Lolita will tell you, a hallmark of postmodern art is its unreliability. Nabokov cannot be said to endorse the content of the novel — the book’s narrator isn’t even particularly trustworthy.

In a legal context, where “evidence” is held to a higher epistemological standard, such issues require more rigorous adjudication. When asked what he thinks about the relationship between an artist and his art, Linsker’s lawyer, Martin Stolar, said that he thinks “it depends on the artist and it depends on the art. Some people who write fiction do it totally out of their imagination.” (Linsker himself could not be reached for comment.)

The outcome of Linsker’s trial will in part determine whether or not his art lines up with his beliefs in this particular instance. But in either case, one isolated line in an ambiguous poem isn’t evidence of very much at all.

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