I’m no better at predicting the future than you are (a fact which hasn’t stopped me from trying to do so in public) but let’s, for the sake or argument, pretend that I am, that I have a secret crystal ball and I’ve been using it to peer into the Kenneth Goldsmith’s life in the year 2021. Let’s pretend that what I saw in that crystal ball confirms Goldsmith’s speculation, at the end of Alec Wilkinson’s New Yorker article “The Poet Who Went Too Far,” that he will leave the poetry world and return to the art world, where he will be accepted. What would such an acceptance signify? What would it tell us about the differences between the poetry and art worlds?
One wonders, immediately, about he question of race. It was, after all, outrage over race—specifically Goldsmith’s appropriation of the autopsy of Ferguson police shooting victim Michael Brown’s autopsy—that ignited a firestorm of criticism and, in our speculative future history, drove Goldsmith out of the poetry world and back to the art world. Could it really be the case that the art world cares less about race and racism than the poetry world? It seems unlikely. One imagines both worlds embody roughly the same level of institutionalized racism: the subtle but nevertheless significant kind one comes across in predominantly white, progressive circles.
Alec Wilkinson reports that Goldsmith feels the art world is simply more “accustomed to outrage and turmoil” than the poetry world, and this, I think, is significant, but in a subtler way than we might expect. It’s not that the art world would shrug off a controversial performance about race. It’s that the art world does not contain many people alienated by Goldsmith’s posturing about the importance of Conceptualism, and the poetry world does. This alienation seems to have played a role in the way justifiable criticism of Goldsmith caught on so quickly and traveled so far.
I want to be careful here, so let me be clear: I think that the most charitable thing one could say Goldsmith’s autopsy reading is that it was a monumental act of insensitivity on a topic where sensitivity is needed—and many have argued for saying things far sharper-edged than that. I think critics of the performance have generally been in the right, and I recommend Cathy Park Hong’s essay in The New Republic as a good place to see many of these criticisms articulated (along with criticisms of how Wilkinson’s New Yorker represents the controversy). But I think that Goldsmith’s earlier posturings in the poetry world quite probably magnified the impact of his actions. After all, other recent race-based controversies in poetry—the Tony Hoagland/Claudia Rankine affair, for example—resulted in less widespread criticism. We didn’t find Hoagland thinking of abandoning poetry for some other, more welcoming realm.
I think the kind of controversy the art world has seen much more of than the poetry world is the controversy over new movements and the claims made on behalf of them. “The art world’s been through counter-movements, counter-revolutions, and then counter-counter-movements” says Goldsmith in Wilkinson’s article, “people’s idea of art is infinite… Poetry is such an easy place to go in and break up the house.” But Goldsmith may have underestimated how angry he would make people in the poetry world when he attempted to break up the house with notions of unoriginality. And that anger, while not the source of the criticism he received about the autopsy reading, created a very fertile ground for the reception of that criticism.
It’s not that there haven’t been new movements and controversies in poetry, but compared to the art world since, say, the days of Impressionism, we’ve seen very few. We’re less used to them, and have fewer antibodies with which to handle the overblown, partisan rhetoric that accompanies them. At the very least, we’d have to go back a generation in the art world to find people as alienated by the claims that a new style has rendered old styles irrelevant as people in the poetry world were by Goldsmith’s claims for Conceptualism. What Leo Steinberg said of the art world in his 1972 book Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth Century Art seems to me entirely true of the poetry world in 2015. When we are asked to “discard visual [read “literary” or “interpretive”] habits which have been acquired in the contemplation of real masterpieces,” wrote Steinberg, we may find ourselves experiencing “a feeling that one’s accumulated culture or experience is hopelessly devalued.” And this will lead us either to despair or smoldering rage. “Who,” we might ask, “is this interloper who tells us the ways we’ve learned to read don’t matter? They goddamn well do matter! Fuck that guy!” And when the interloper commits an actual, and very public, act of monumental insensitivity, his critics will find that the flames of their anger meeting with plenty of dry kindling. The fire will be bigger and hotter than it would have been if more people in the field were inclined to view the person favorably, the outrage spreading to those who might otherwise have shrugged it all off.
None of this is to say that there shouldn’t have been a fire, that the criticism was at all unfounded—quite the opposite. I’m just wondering if it would have burned brightly enough to melt the wax from Goldsmith’s Icarian wings.