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Editors’ Note: This essay is one of a group of essays on Race and the Poetic Avant-Garde. Read the rest.
I am sick of the term “avant-garde,” a European invention that has been presided over and refined by white critics since the French banker, mathematician, and social reformer Olinde Rodrigues first used the term in 1825. Contemporary discussions about the artistic avant-garde seldom address race because the term has come to be a force for maintaining pedigree, establishing lineage and bloodlines—bloodlines largely presided over by supervisors and administrators: those individuals who control access to the descriptor “avant-garde,” and determine the reception of poetic works through publication, reviewing, and public readings.
Most recently, the ideal of avant-garde poetry has become tangled up with another term: post-identity writing. According to the Conceptual poet Kenneth Goldsmith: “Uncreative writing is a postidentity literature.” In 2008, he summarized Marjorie Perloff’s keynote address for the Tuscon, Arizona Conceptual Poetry Conference, writing that she “questioned the values of a poetics based on identity in a time when neither phone numbers nor email addresses tell us where caller and recipient are actually located, nor does an email address provide vital statistics about its possessor; when an AOL or Yahoo address, for example, reveals neither nationality, ethnicity, race, religion, age—and often not even gender.” If such marks of identity are now passé, then why did the 2010 Arizona legislature find them so dangerous as to require prohibition? Law HB 2281 bans public school courses that, among other things, “advocate ethnic solidarity,” including, for example, Mexican American Literature.
The choice for writers of color seems to be to write within prescribed notions of acceptable experimentation or be invisible.
Recent debate around this topic shows that it is not, in fact, obvious or dead. If anything, I agree with Daniel Borzutzky’s recent Harriet post responding to Cathy Hong Park’s essay, “Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant-garde,” in which he characterizes the avant-garde’s dismissal of “identity poetics” as “central to the United-Statesian avant-poetry’s subjectivity-masking, first-person denying, retro-1970s-we’re-not so-into-narrative-and-emotions-because-they-are-subjectively-fabricated-phenomena-whose-conservativism-needs-to-be-combatted-with-revolutionary-anti-subjectivity-or anti-creative-‘texts.’”As the white cultural gatekeepers frame it, experimental writers of color either don’t exist in the “colorless” (read “white”) world of the “avant-garde,” or they are late arrivers, like hyenas feeding off the carcasses left behind by white writers.
The choice for writers of color seems to be to write within prescribed notions of acceptable experimentation (a choice that exists not so far from the nostalgic wish to return to a racially unmarked domain known as “Great Literature”), or be invisible. The second option is frequently the only option available to non-black writers of color. As Dorothy J. Wang points out in her “Preface” to Thinking Its Presence: Form, Race, and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry: “Langston Hughes might be included [in a Modernist poetry survey] as the token black—or what amounts to the same thing, the exceptional exception—but surely no other Harlem Renaissance poet (not to mention an Asian American poet such as Jose Garcia Villa).” Being “the exceptional exception” is like being a member of “the model minority.” Who wants it?
In my essay,“Please Wait by the Coatroom,” first published in Arts Magazine (December 1988), I wrote of visual artist Wifredo Lam’s masterpiece The Jungle that it “hangs in the hallway leading to the coatroom of the Museum of Modern Art. Its location is telling. The artist has been allowed into the museum’s lobby, but, like a delivery boy, has been made to wait in an inconspicuous passageway near the front door.” My essay was a close reading of the museum’s characterization of Lam as a follower of Pablo Picasso, rather than as a Chinese and Afro-Cuban artist of originality.
In order to support this colorless (or postidentity) viewpoint, William Rubin, the director of the department of Painting and Sculpture at MoMA from 1973 to 1988, contextualizes Lam’s use of ethnic sources as solely a consequence of his connection to Surrealism; he writes in the exhibition catalogue, Dada, Surrealism and Their Heritage (1968) that “Wifredo Lam was the first Surrealist to make primitive and ethnic sources central to his art.” This elision suggests that Lam’s race and cultural background have nothing to do with his aesthetic choices, a formal viewpoint which neatly aligns itself with Perloff’s and Goldsmith’s touting of a postidentity world. While the term “postidentity” might strike some in the literary world as provocative, it is not new, having been borrowed from the art world and the narrative that links the progress of art with formal innovation and historical determinism, in which the goal is art about art—a questionable paradigm at best.
Rather than considering what I had to say about Rubin’s misguided assumptions, the Museum of Modern Art took the painting off display, literally and metaphorically removing all evidence. They seemed to have had no interest in engaging in a conversation. More recently Al Filreis, in recalling a critical review I wrote of Eliot Weinberger’s anthology American Poetry since 1950: Innovators and Outsiders (1993), wrote on his widely read blog: “Yau doesn’t have a political bone in his body and nothing really explains his attack (unless, as Weinberger hints, Yau had just lost his sanity).” Seemingly, being Asian American had nothing to do with why I was critical that an anthology of thirty-five “outsider” poets included only two black writers, Langston Hughes and Amiri Baraka, and saw nothing problematic about emphasizing the centrality of the anti-Semitic Ezra Pound as the forerunner of avant-garde poetry. Instead of questioning Weinberger’s assertion, Filreis chose to reinforce the view that I had lost my “sanity.”
All these white individuals in positions of artistic power share the same strategy of personal attack: Say anything that thoroughly discredits the messenger while ignoring the message. At the same time, other than in cases of the “exceptional exception,” separate the writer’s or artist’s identity from the work. These authorities seem not to have considered the possibility that their assumptions were racist from the start, that racial identity isn’t something you put on and take off, like a shirt or shoes. To claim that someone “doesn’t have a political bone in his body” is to assert that you know that individual inside out, that you in fact both own that person’s body and can personally speak for it—must speak for it, actually, particularly if he has “just lost his sanity” and cannot talk for himself. Should Weinberger and Filreis make such claims about me or anyone else? Or are these assertions of a postidentity world part of the ongoing narrative of white privilege that is synonymous with accepted views of the “avant-garde?”
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