Michael Brown (image by the author for Hyperallergic)

Michael Brown (image by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

On a Friday evening, my partner and I wander into an auditorium at Brown University and find ourselves five minutes into what is apparently Kenneth Goldsmith’s poem “The Body of Michael Brown.” It sounds like “The Autopsy Report of Michael Brown.” It is a crisp, gray day at the Interrupt 3 conference as Goldsmith smoothly reads through the extent of Michael Brown’s injuries, pausing here and there for dramatic effect. My collaborator Sophia Le Fraga has mentioned his name before, and judging by his clothes and educated tone, I take Goldsmith to be a sensitive, new-age guy — the kind that self-identifies as spiritual, is well traveled, and enjoys (even makes) conceptual art. His head is bald and his beard long, his glasses are thick, and he wears a slightly patterned blazer over an unremarkable shirt, ending in a long, heavy black skirt and boots with red laces. His appearance seems to reflect vast interests in things like the internet and globalization. Above him is Michael Brown’s graduation photo. Brown is forever 18 years old; his skin is smooth, his goatee trimmed, his face looks strong and his hands soft.

Something is off about Goldsmith’s tone. I start to pick up a giddy somberness, the way some people giggle when they deliver bad news, like they aren’t sure what else to do. By now, I’m starting to get angry, and apparently visibly so, because my partner asks me if I want to leave and I whisper back, “No, I’m curious.” As my anger rises, I begin to count how many people of color are in the room: 3, 4, 5, 7, 8 maybe …

Kenneth Goldsmith reading "The Body of Michael Brown" at Interrupt 3 (screenshot via @soulellis/Twitter)

Kenneth Goldsmith reading “The Body of Michael Brown” at Interrupt 3 (screenshot via @soulellis/Twitter)

Reading nearly every banal medical word of Michael Brown’s autopsy, Goldsmith flitters on, his skirt swaying as he paces in a five-foot line onstage. I can see the videographer trying to keep up with him. As Goldsmith details the mutilation of Michael Brown’s hands, I look down at my own. I want to raise one, to stop this, to slow things down, but I don’t. I just look up at Brown’s graduation picture, finding his hands instead. At this point the work has deteriorated into a mind-numbing description of Brown’s body, which still somehow remains as vivid as ever. Goldsmith turns to Brown’s legs, thighs, and eventually his genitalia. The whole description feels sexual. Goldsmith’s voice rises slightly in pitch as he reaches the climax of his 30-minute poem”: “All surrounding genitalia is unremarkable.”

Confused, stunned silence ensues. Some people clap.

A panel of white poets takes the stage awkwardly as the microphone gets passed around the auditorium for a Q&A. I raise my hand. After two NPR-ish listeners remark on the vivid nature of the poem and placate without provoking, I receive the mic. I immediately regret raising my hand. I have no idea what I have to say, just that I need to say something. There is a sensation you get as a black American in American academia when white Americans start to talk about black people. It’s a complicated feeling, a helpless rage that cannot be quelled unless explicitly penned in.

Goldsmith is a famous poet — he founded a whole movement in which some of my poet friends work. I can feel my anxiety rising, and I scramble to call the work a cop-out. I realize later that what I mean is there are political realities from which art cannot hide. To take a document like this and attempt to make it into a form of art is blatantly not engaging with the issues at hand. Using a white body to try to interpret and illustrate the violence wrought upon black bodies in America is lazy.

A white girl with white glasses directly responds to me, explaining that we must respect Goldsmith’s art: in her view, Goldsmith essentially took us all hostage for 30 minutes, and as hostages to the work, we must try to interpret it without lashing out. Another NPR listener definitively states that while he found the poem thought-provoking, bringing up Michael Brown’s penis at the end was uncalled for. More white people speak. A doctor says that, for her, this reading was very vivid because she knew so much of the language and could easily see the extent of the wounds on the body. She found that powerful. As a few more white people speak, I hear Michael Brown’s body referred to over and over as “a body,” “the body,” “it.”

Another white girl speaks passionately about love and kindness and the indifference indicated by reading Brown’s autopsy report aloud. She seems well intentioned and smart enough to know that she cannot speak for anybody other than herself. She is also tired of hearing Michael Brown’s body referred to as “it”. The videographer’s lens, now a feed on the large screen, shows Goldsmith sitting just two rows in front of the white girl. Goldsmith’s face is getting red as he stares at her.

*   *   *

A memorial for Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri (photo via Wikimedia Commons)

A memorial for Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri (photo via Wikimedia Commons)

My sister is a junior at Brown University. Throughout the weekend after the reading, we debated the lack of merit of this piece, searching for a context in which to analyze and critique the experience. On Saturday, organizer Francesca Capone asked me if I’d be interested in speaking — or interrupting — during the final Interrupt event on Sunday; I agreed.

There were 30–40 people in the auditorium on Sunday, and the conversation began with poet Aaron Apps’s presentation of a brilliant and furious sound piece read through the voice of a computer. It was liberating to hear a seemingly neutral mouthpiece chew on this recent series of events and say:

The image, the death, is ubiquitous. Lyricizing a racialization of Brown’s corpse is horrific. Why would one do that in this space? Wait, that question isn’t interesting. Goldsmith’s piece isn’t provocative, it is explicitly invasive.

Apps continued:

How dare you make poetry porn out of a medicalized, dehumanized body? How dare you? How dare you present it in this space filled with privileged people playing at radical politics at the site of formal interventions in poems and lines of code? How dare people sit in the audience and talk about how important it was that they sat there and listened to it? How dare someone enact a microagression against me when I entered the conference?

Apps’s piece pushed the audience by stating plain, evident truths, woven through pop culture, personal history, poetic criticism, and pure frustration. We didn’t get to enjoy that peace for long. Without skipping a beat, a white girl sitting onstage with us brought up how Friday night’s event had reverberated through her weekend as she examined her own white privilege; she said that she couldn’t sleep all weekend. A middle-aged white man questioned the auditorium about Adorno, who suggested there could be no poetry after Auschwitz — the interjection felt relevant as the man weighed these two circumstances, trauma for trauma. The conversation continued for a moment. More white people confessed that they too had not slept. My sister, outraged and well rested, interrupted and asked about the black body and this obvious kidnapping. She explained that for her it felt like Goldsmith physically took Michael Brown’s body, chewed it up, and spat it out, exhibiting it for only the institutionally brightest minds to see.

Still from HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN?'s "Good Stock on the Dimensional Floor: An Opera"

Still from HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN?’s “Good Stock on the Dimensional Floor: An Opera”

She coaxed me to speak. I admitted that I am an artist, not a poet, and I said that I approach these ideas with the canon of art as my fertile point of reference. For me, watching Goldsmith felt like the same trauma as reading about Joe Scanlan’s Donelle Woolford project after the HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN? (Yams) Collective withdrew their poem/opera “Good Stock on the Dimension Floor” from the Whitney Biennial last year. The Yams collective clarified some of the reasons they withdrew from the biennial in an email from Sienna Shields last May:

We’re sure that we don’t need to explain how the notion of a black artist being “willed into existence” and the use of a black FEMALE body through which a WHITE male “artist” conceptually masturbates in the context of an art exhibition presents a troubling model of the BLACK body and of conceptual RAPE. The possibility of this figure somehow producing increased “representation” for black artists both furthers the reduction of black personhood and insults the very notion of representation as a political or collective engagement.

A fictional artist, a 30-something-year-old well-educated black lesbian artist from Georgia (now from Detroit) who is actually a 53-year-old white male artist, was one of the only nine participating black artists/groups in the Whitney Biennial (whose totally contributors numbered more than 100)? Seriously?

Later, in an interview with artnet News, some of the Yams members explained that Donelle Woolford is just a symptom of a broken system. Shields called their invitation to participate in the biannual exhibition tokenism, citing the obvious exclusion of black artists from previous biennials. Andre Springer put it more bluntly: “The Whitney Museum promotes this idea that it is the voice of American art and speaks for the nation when it comes to what contemporary art is. But it’s completely not diverse, and so it misrepresents the direction where art is going. I feel it’s lost touch with what art is today.” Saying “yes” was the beginning of the Yams’ protest; pulling out of the show was just the completion of that action.


A Michael Brown protestor in Ferguson, Missouri (photo via Wikimedia Commons)

It runs deeper, obviously. There are thousands of stories told often in the black artist community. Almost every black artist whose name you know has been snubbed, passed over, and ignored in one way or another by a major institution; imagine how it is for the artists whose names you don’t know. Trust me, white supremacy is alive and well in the art and academic worlds today. Brown University’s faults are not its alone.

Goldsmith’s reading gave me a glimpse of the white supremacist patriarchy alive within me. It runs deep in my mind and stops me from defending my people and myself. I guess I can take solace in the fact that I did get some sleep last weekend.

While writing this essay, I found an interesting irony: at the bottom of Michael Brown’s autopsy report it reads, “For Official Use Only.”

Rin Johnson is a photo-conceptual artist. She has exhibited extensively around the US and Europe. She has a BFA in photography and imaging from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. She is the founder of Imperial...

53 replies on “On Hearing a White Man Co-opt the Body of Michael Brown”

  1. “There is a sensation you get as a black American in American academia when white Americans start to talk about black people.”

    I wanna know what Benjamin Sutton has to say about this.

  2. Goldsmith reads the coroners report, and you freak out. Fascinating, but racist through and through.

    1. It is not racist at all to object to white men using the murder of black men as grist for their own art making without doing much to address the actual problems of the real racism that got this young man killed, accused of a robbery that did not happen, being a “demon”, having his blackness treated as a weapon, and got his body lying in the street for multiple hours.

      If you think the reaction to this poem is racist, you have absolutely no clue what racism actually is and what the actual problems and effects of racism actually are.

  3. “Using a white body to try to interpret and illustrate the violence wrought upon black bodies in America is lazy.” Meaning writing a poem?

    Is the basic fact that Goldsmith likely wrote the poem cause he was upset about the Michael Brown situation not relevant to the discussion? Are we gonna just say that every attempt at understanding and is now a ‘microaggression’.

    Feeling a growing rage, and it’s directed at a button pushing artist rather than the racist police state? Can you say TRANSFERENCE?

    1. Since you’re bringing up transference, perhaps you should pay more attention to the presentation of a supposed attempt at empathy and understanding via poetry. Praytell, what effects do you believe are produced from a grand projection of someone whose face, identity, and story, has been drug through mud or vivified in protest? Are audiences invited to simply focus on the poetics of language?

      Sure, people can place their energies towards whatever they please, but the framing of it within an art context should certainly not shield them from any critiques about political efficacy or ethics. Artists are just as open to critique as anyone else.

      Goldsmith’s material wasn’t poetry. Poetry was just the medium for transmission.

      1. It seems to me what’s being transmitted is open-eyed horror. The knee-jerk reaction to the piece is what’s problematic.

        Michael Brown’s death is a subject worthy of investigation. Even if the PC police don’t like it.

        1. It is worthy of investigation. But I wasn’t at this performance. Were you?

          How is it a kneejerk reaction and where, at any moment, did the author attempt to censor Goldsmith? There’s much more to this article than that. I lost a lengthy respose, but in short, I’ll be on the search for video footage.

          1. Well there’s an attempt by racial-fundamentalists to shame Goldsmith for daring to cross the line and speak on concerns that they deem he’s not supposed to care about.

          2. Its not that he isn’t supposed to care. He has basically “written” a paean to his own white rage built upon the massive pile of black corpses. He hasn’t actually added anything to the discussion besides “I think its terrible, too!” Its great that he thinks it is terrible, but if that is all he has to say a presentation like this is nothing but white chest beating about how terrible it is that something a white man thinks is terrible happened.

          3. “He has basically “written” a paean to his own white rage built upon the massive pile of black corpses.”

            No. No. That’s just a melodramatic response. That’s fucking ridiculous.

          4. If he adds nothing to the discussion beyond “I think this is terrible”, then that is exactly what he is doing. His poem doesn’t speak truth to power. It speaks truism to other white liberals so they can feel they have done their part by simply feeling outraged for a while.

          5. A: It doesn’t need to speak ‘truth to power” it’s a fucking poem. Your agenda for the poem is meaningless. B: Everyone at the conference is guilty of speaking to a privileged minority. C: What he did was read/edit an autopsy report. I’m sure it was horrible and uncomfortable to listen to. I’m sure some people want uplifting poems, but the fact remains: the autopsy report itself is the damning truth.

          6. Well, everyone involved is (during their involvement as recounted above) sequestered in an institution of class privilege. If Mr. Goldsmith then reads the autopsy of Mr. Brown to this privileged audience, maybe that’s his version of speaking truth to power. I don’t think it’s very effective, either, but that’s a technical matter, not a moral or political one.

        2. It is worthy of investigation. How was this an actual investigation of it? What did it actually add to the discussion outside of yet another person saying they are angry about the death of an unarmed black man?

    2. Its not an attempt at understanding. Its not an attempt at understanding the racism that killed Brown or the ways racism effects nearly if not every aspect of the lives of black people.

      Also, anger at racism doesn’t have to be limited to only one racist target.

      Sure, Goldsmith was upset about Brown’s death and everything that came with it. What has he actually added to the discussion or helped other white people understand with this poem?

  4. Poetry and art shouldn’t be held hostage to anyone’s feelings or what’s deemed to be “good taste.” Just watch, analyze and be happy you don’t live in a nation that doesn’t protect speech and art. Or, just go burn paintings you don’t like with the rest of the Nazis.

    1. It would be funny if it weren’t so myopic and horrendous that you think the black people who object to this poem should just be happy they live in a nation that protects speech and art while they live in a nation that doesn’t actually protect their very lives and is in fact killing black men and women left and right and has been for centuries.

      1. c’mon Den is all this hysteria necessary or worthwhile? Everyone on this comment board knows what racism is, and no one is speaking in favor of it. Goldsmith’s poem clearly had its effect, including an unhappy “helter-skelter” one — prompting you and other commenters here into paroxysms of anti-white anger. We know all about that, too — that’s why we cross the street when we see you coming.

        1. Wait.. did you seriously just make a reference to race war in reference to the author of this article?

          Apparently you don’t actually understand what racism is.

          And how do you know who to avoid by crossing the street?

        2. WoooOH Quasimodo – you really gave yourself away in this post. It is precisely this level of white paranoia that kills young black men – witness the videoed crazy killing of that poor man who was suffering from mental illness just last week.

  5. white poets, black American, white Americans, black people, white body black bodies, white girl, white people, white people, white girl, white girl, white girl, middle-aged white man, white people, black body, black artist, black FEMALE, BLACK body, black artists, black personhood, black lesbian, white male, black artists, black artists, black artist, black artist, white supremacist.

  6. This article expressed a specific experince very well- is an experience that doesn’t get communicated enough in the overall culture, and in glad to see it here. There’s no use in requesting that the author have had a more compassionate or productive reaction to the performance, since he experienced what he did, being a human, and that’s fact. When should art be able to get away with certain ugly things? I’ve never read Uncle Tom’s Cabin (heard it gets pretty boring actually : /), although I’ve read Huck Finn. Those books may not be quite as raw or provocative as this poem/performance, and were distributed widely, unlike contemporary poetry today. But nevertheless both of those books presented academically accepted, white, flawed artistic expressions of objection to slavery. They did some good though. Is this poem doing more harm than good? Is it because of its content, or the performance, or the setting? Would it be different if a black man or woman were its author? If the poet had waited ten years before reading it? Would the author of the article be just as annoyed by Harriet B Stowe (who might have been one of the white girls in the audience)? I don’t know the answer to those questions.

    I’m grateful to the author of this article for bringing it to a larger, more public forum- a different tactic than the poet had. It’s when we try to shut each other up that we run a greater risk.

  7. This is a purposeful article. The discussion brings up many issues our society and particularly the artist community should be talking about. Goldsmith’s piece, if that’s what it can be called, is indicative of the politically correct viewer shock-torture accepted in the art world as cred for being a real “artist”. What is the art world’s and the artist’s role in a society falling freefall into a racist, fascist police state? Amplify the racism, brutality, pain and terror of the United States of Anarchy for the 1% in representative documentations, and watch people’s minds squirm and burn? While DOING absolutely nothing to physically change the situation?

    This reminds me of an author character in one of those island Bergman films who roamed around the island entering obliquely into people’s lives digesting their personal traumas, even cruelly nudging them along, never helping or caring, later using them as the characters and tragedies in his novels. Is this enlightenment from observation, or titillating entertainment from a voyeur? In this country that seemingly has 300 million idle voyeurs hiding behind a screen, this poetry-performance is nothing more than a painful reminder that our society is a heartless postmodern train wreck. And art like this just magnifies the impotence, co-opting us to accept it, rather than stimulating people to participate in finding and implementing solutions.

    Just as the obsolete juvenile world of the 1% is collapsing itself with greed, cruelty and incompetence, so the art world and artists must look at ourselves for the role we play in this crisis. Isn’t it interesting that Goldsmith gets easy system approval to stage shock art porn of a racist police state adrenalin kill, while those “artists” in the streets of America with hands in the air, or images of refusal saying “hands up, don’t shoot!” get fired on in every form imaginable?

    Where’s the courage? Where’s the art?

    1. Best reply yet. “What is the art world’s and the artist’s role in a society falling freefall into a racist, fascist police state? . . . Just as the obsolete juvenile world of the 1% is collapsing itself with greed, cruelty and incompetence, so the art world and artists must look at ourselves for the role we play in this crisis. Isn’t it interesting that Goldsmith gets easy system approval to stage shock art porn of a racist police state adrenalin kill, while those “artists” in the streets of America with hands in the air, or images of refusal saying “hands up, don’t shoot!” get fired on in every form imaginable?”

      Thank you.

    2. Thoughtful. Thank you. But how do you (or we) know that Goldsmith is doing nothing to physically (perhaps you also mean practically or politically?) change the situation?

      I take your point but want to suggest that the inherent limitation to art, one we perhaps deny, is that it is always representing. It always signifies. It gives a mediated response, and perhaps the degree of mediation has been growing since 20th century Modernism divorced experience from representation and constructed art as a self-referential discourse.

      Art is not politics, and even performance that is affecting and powerful does not change power structures, or the web of social relations that makes the demonizing and killing of young black men permissible. Perhaps this is something beyond the scope of aesthetic production.

      1. We are talking about what Goldsmith did, a performance, not about other actions we do not know about. And this performance is clearly angst-porn. This is a worn out and now cruel tactic to induce reflection in the audience.

        Calling this performance self referential or even classifying art as merely representation, gives a postmodern pass on all critique. I think this intellectual positioning is exactly the black hole that the art world has stepped into. It reflects the immorality and self-centeredness of our precious and hegemonic capitalism that justifies it’s every selfish act.

        Art is not politics? Everything is politics. Art is not merely “aesthetic production” just as creating GMOs is not just chemistry. There are impacts to everything we do. And if there were ever a time that humans need to realized that, it’s now. The evil power structures that rule our lives continue to do so only because THEY continue to force feed the 99% a self-serving postmodern myth of futile impotence.

        1. I hear what you are saying. I’m not sure you are hearing me. the situation you referred to in your initial post is that of the racist, fascist police state. You suggested that his art does nothing to practically address the freefall into this situation. I agree with you. My larger question is whether art or aesthetic production can do the things you seem to think it can. I wonder even when art is courageous whether it can change the political structures and social relations you point to as egregious.

          I know brave and brilliant poets who make work that is haunting, but I still think poetry itself is a discourse that is not the discourse of politics or state power. I’m not giving a pass on critique, I’m questioning its effectiveness. And yes art is (in one of its aspects) a system of commodifying objects, and allocating wealth and trading social, cultural and economic capital, but you seem to think it should or could be, dare I say revolutionary.

          You might say that everything is politiCAL, but everything is not politics, or not political action. The social movements that have profoundly changed the US (Civil Rights movement, Workers rights, women’s suffrage) have not been rooted in aesthetics, they have been rooted in ethics and sustained political action that addressed state power. I don’t think art is where revolutionary change begins or ends. That does not mean we are impotent. It means that we might stop expecting art to accomplish that which is beyond its inherent limitations. And what would our politics look like if we made that the place where we invested all our desire for substantive social change?

          1. I totally hear your point of view and attempted addressing those rationalizations seeing “art” as inappropriate for political statements, or for being the work of activism. You’re attempting to draw me into the dreary and obsolete “what is art” argument. Let me cut to: “art” has always been transcendent skill in creations, whether functional objects or objects of beauty made for their own sake. Partisan politics of participants and the commercialized infrastructure composing the “contemporary art world” have always attempted to claim intellectual possession of the word “art” with _____________. The word “aesthetics” does not contain art in a way that claims possession to it. From art is “everything”, to “art is dead”. The advertising world uses art as propaganda, as do governments. The idea of art as outside the realm of making coherent statements about contemporary events or conditions, and that it must be multi-ambiguous is an obsolete ivory tower view. Because this view is a canon of the art world establishment a lot of really great work is filtered out, and a lot of really crappy work is propped up.

            Goldsmith’s performance was VERY political in that it deals with a deadly political event. If Brown’s death had never been the spark that started the Ferguson protests, we would never have had Goldsmith’s performance or would we be discussing this as corporate media has always ignored state violence against black folks. This means Goldsmith opportunistically used this instance as an autopsy of a political crime. Not political huh? This reflects exactly what I said in the first comment, the creator is USING the grief of others to magnify his status as an artist. Not political? You wanna tell me next the art museum world is not “political”? Come on! As i said… everything is political. Deciding whether to drive a car or ride a bike to the store or work is a political act.

            Can art be revolutionary? As much as anything. Hitler thought it the most dangerous form of opposition. Authoritarian regimes ban and/or punish it. Capitalist plutocracies like the US and Europe marginalize it with art snobbery or bury it in consumer culture spin, cooptation or outright dismissal. From the revolutionary posters of Russia, Cuba and China to the US political movements of the 60s until today including Occupy, political poster art capture the emotion of liberty and depict solidarity against tyranny and for liberation. WPA posters bringing solidarity and spirit to an overwhelmed working class. Expressions of resistance bring solidarity and communal spirit while defining sometimes inexpressible wrongs with clarity of mind. Within what you would consider the culturally sanctified “art world” there’s Millet’s solidarity with field workers; Goya and Picasso works slamming authoritarianism, fascism and war; Grosz and other’s works of horror against WWI; Dada; anarchist art and puppet works; not to mention tons of counter-culture works little documented by the established elite’s Art Club. Then you have Magritte and Duchamp working against the prison of depictions. John Heartfield anti-Nazi illustrations within Germany, Irving Norman in the US, and even deeply political Richard Serra with his alienating walls of steel.

            The real reason why political art is so marginalized is because it threatens the rule of the 1% who essentially run every “club” in the world with their money&power and must not loose control. Political art demands consciousness, justice and egalitarianism. This is an anathema to those in power and they use every tool at hand to filter out resistance and useful solidarity raising knowledge. The fact that you have bought into this will be clear as day, after the next crash and after the revolution that establishes direct democracy.

            Yes you can have aesthetics, political awareness, economic justice and revolution. Just not with the existing constipated control freak elites filtering out intellectual and emotional genetic diversity from anti-capitalists and other justice demanding riff-raff.

          2. Okay, please. Take a deep breath and stop fulminating at me. You are no longer paying attention to what I’m asking you, and it’s starting to make me think you are not prepared to take new ideas on board.

            I didn’t say that art is not appropriate for political situations or activism. I think it is. I DO believe it is capable of making coherent statements about contemporary conditions. I’m really asking how effective it is. I’m not trying to draw you into an argument about what art is. I agree it is a dreary and tiresome discussion.

            Clearly, you are not paying attention to my posts. I didn’t say that Goldsmith’s work was not political. In fact, I said that most everything is political. The distinction I’m drawing is that art should not be confused with sustained political action that I think has the ability to bring about social change. Everything is not politics, nor is art the same as political action. These are different things.

            You have mentioned several historical examples of artists making art that have pushed an agenda of consciousness, justice and egalitarianism. (Hitler by the way is a bad example. He is not a pillar of rational thought.) Great. I agree. My question still stands: what social movements in the US or internationally have expanded the rights of people or installed procedures ensuring greater justice that have been primarily propelled by art? I can’t think of one. The ones I mentioned above were certainly supported by art, but art did not get it done. None of the examples you suggested meet this standard. Sustained political action does, and (again) I don’t think they are the same things.

            Please, don’t make assumptions about my position. Respond to what I’ve said, not what you imagine me saying.

          3. Your argument is completely confused. You believe art cannot affect political change. I disagree and presented evidence. Political change does not come through any one vehicle. All aspects of culture and social organization bring it about. Art, no matter how you define it, contributes to political change. And as such Goldsmith’s contribution via this performance was bad art, and bad politics, IMHO.

          4. No, Sandy. My argument is not confused at all. You’ve spent most of our conversation grandstanding, making a case for art’s supposed ability to mimic, bolster or replace political action, and my argument (or question) has been that art is a particular kind of discourse and practice that while addressing politics is not nearly as good as effecting social change as you seem to think it is.

            (By the way, the word you likely meant to use in your second sentence is “effect” as in generate or propel, not “affect”.) Now you admit that political change (but that too is not what we are talking about; really it’s social change) comes about through a compendium of action, or which art may be one component. This is partly what I’ve been asserting all along.

            Honestly, this feels like an argument that is not worth having because you don’t seem able to argue in good faith, or able to follow a rational line of reasoning. Art does not necessarily contribute to political change. It can. Yes. But it does not necessarily. More I don’t think that it does so as effectively as people like you tend to think it does.

            And the more I see of contemporary art practice and the more I see of the spread of a neoliberal colonization of the civic sphere and of the space of culture dedicated to contemplating ideas, the more I think that art is only declining in its ability to address political concerns. This has nothing to do with art per se, but more to do with our collective impoverished politics and ethics, and our unwillingness to face our poverty of conscience. We foist the obligation to think about how we operate in the world onto art, thinking that art can compensate for our ethical failings, but it doesn’t. Let’s please just leave this here.

  8. Art is a conversation, not a patent office.
    Poets in ostrich-like ignorance of the potential of sharing—as opposed to
    hoarding—their texts, are ignoring potentially the most important artistic
    innovation of the 20th century: collage. What’s at stake? Nothing but their
    own obsolescence. If you don’t share you don’t exist.
    We expect plumbers, electricians, engineers and doctors to both have a
    specific and specialized vocabulary & be on the forefront of new
    advancements in their field, but scorn poets who do the same.
    Poets are now judged not by the quality of their writing but by the
    infallibility of their choices.

    derek beaulieu

  9. I hesitate to comment as I can see emotions are running high. I have not witnessed Goldsmith’s performance so I can’t comment on this. However, are some critics and posters suggesting that it is impossible for a white person to make an artistic statment about racism or the death of a black person ? Where does this leave Dylan’s “Hattie Carrol” and “Hurricane” ? My apologies if I have misunderstood something here, but this seems to be what I am reading.

    1. You’re only allowed to speak on these issues as a white person if the message of the piece is extremely obvious, my which I mean it must be completely sympathetic towards black people and must align itself firmly with the “white men are to blame for everything” narrative of the establishment left. Any talk of nuance or ambiguity will be immediately read as nazi/kkk/white-supremacy rhetoric and you will be automatically demonized as an open racist with your career shredded in front of your face.

  10. It sounds to me like the author’s discomfort stemmed more from the delivery of the text than from anything else. Obviously, Goldsmith did not write the words themselves. His work is always entirely appropriated from pre-existing texts. What transformed the autopsy report into a work of aesthetics – or perhaps even poetry – was the reading itself.

    Would this have been different if Goldsmith merely published this poem? Or if he had passed around a printed copy, had the audience read it silently to themselves, and then proceeded directly to discussion? I think so. In that sense, it would merely have been an identical document to the official version, just framed differently. Here, however, the image of Brown’s dead body is reconstituted through Goldsmith’s voice. It is the intimacy between Goldsmith’s speaking and the person about whom he speaks that localizes the discomfort, because there is nothing to suggest that this intimacy is valid. Goldsmith’s position as a privileged white male, working in the most elite contexts of culture and value, estranges him as radically as possible from the experience of Michael Brown. What rings false here is precisely the intimacy that Goldsmith’s intoning implies.

    At the same time, Goldsmith’s choice of this particular text only serves to emphasize how radical indeed this estrangement is. Not only is Goldsmith white and privileged, but he is alive–a live body speaking a dead one is always a kind of act of violation (and here, the point about Adorno is well taken), perhaps akin to a kind of second autopsy, a second cutting-open of the corpse (one might imagine the white hands of the coroner repeated in Goldsmith’s).

    Is that cutting-open racist? Is it wrong? It seems to me that it has already occurred. Goldsmith’s poem merely re-iterates it. Surely, it is racist, but is the re-iteration of racism in order to expose it necessarily itself a racist act? Or is there such a thing as opening up a space of discourse around racism precisely through a kind of over-identification with its structures (the very structures of power that produced that autopsy report–structures of knowledge repeated in the institution of the university)?

    In some ways, I feel this author’s article is a part of Goldsmith’s work – it completes the poem, making it as much and more the author’s as Goldsmith’s, as much Michael Brown’s as the State of Illinois’, just as Michael Brown’s body has become metonymic with all black bodies and the violence to which they have been subjected through the machinations — visible and invisible — of power and its (white) possessors.

    1. Oliver “a live body speaking a dead one is always a kind of act of violation”. Really ? How much of the history of art have you just negated with these words ?

      1. You mean those white European males speaking on behalf of other white European males?

        Oh, you poor fool. You don’t seem to get it. Once a core group of progressive leftists deem a white male to be racist there’s no changing their minds. Anyone who tries to discuss the situation with reason and facts to argue in opposition is labeled as a conservative, the progressive’s arch nemesis. Do you honestly believe that what you’ve just written won’t be interpreted as a privileged white male defending another privileged white male on charges of racism due to a collective racist hivemind of white supremacy? This isn’t an exaggeration, this is what the majority of Hyperallergic’s core audience literally believe.

      2. Smith, thanks for this comment.

        Briefly, the answer is yes and no. Surely I am suggesting there is a violence at the heart of art history, and perhaps all history, especially when history itself is seen as an aesthetic act– an act of the facture of narrative.

        But I am not so much negating that project as pointing out the negation already imposed by the dialectical nature of deigning to write another’s victimhood. Again, this is not a new idea. Art historians read Adorno without facing existential crises about art history (though perhaps more often they should).

        I suppose my larger point in all this was to simply say that while Goldsmith’s poem may very well have been obscene, it nevertheless seemed to function well in accumulating this discourse around it, in occasioning an eloquent and powerful response like that of the author of this article, and the debate that has followed.

    2. My understanding is that KG didn’t just lift the autopsy report verbatim . . . he changed some words from the medical to words that tweaked the poetry more, and he rearranged some of the text, purposefully he said, for poetic effect, and he moved the account of MB’s genitals to the very end. So it’s not really a found poem or “readymade” . . . KG manipulates the text to his own purposes . . . poetic effect. One has to ask what was the poetic effect of focusing on the gentials at the end?

      1. MillieNeon: Thanks for that point. I obviously wasn’t there and appreciate your clarifying. In that case, I think you’re dead on with your question. I would suggest, though, that the answer is something along the lines of what I mentioned earlier, vis-a-vis provoking a response. The ethics of such a provocation are, however, another story entirely.

        1. I hear you. Having grown up in the South, I’m very conscious of the racist myth about black men and their genitalia. So if KG’s manipulating the text for a provocation, that particular one will resonate racism for miles.

  11. I would agree that the text somewhat completes Goldsmith’s “poem”, albeit in its own incomplete way, which perhaps is then further progressed in this comment section. Speaking for myself, there have been many conferences, symposiums, art events, readings (etc.) where I have felt like something was “off”, an imbalance that I couldn’t quite put my finger on, but I think fundamentally it is that these situations exist in an inherent and unavoidable position of privilege and, perhaps more to the point, safety. In this case, while I don’t agree with the author on all her points, at least this academic location was, through both the poet and the author of this text and her sister’s comments, slightly wedged open. Wouldn’t that then indicate a healthy counter-balance to the poet’s possible self-indulgence or to white liberal assumptions about how to address racism? It is a messy and uncomfortable situation but is being acknowledge as such, and has in fact provided a space for such responses.

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