White Noise, Black Mirrors, and the Rising of Self-appointed Gatekeepers

I considered writing an essay last month during the Baltimore riots that contained only an expansive list of ethnic slurs to see if that list somehow could provide a wakeup call to the foolishness of playground name calling—a stark and punchy commentary on the childish state of race relations in America—but Wikipedia already had beaten me to the punch.

I also considered writing a defense of PEN American Center’s decision to honor the fallen staff of the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo—a tribute to the editorial cartoonists killed in the line of white-collar duty, but I’ve read more than my fill of both sides of the argument, and sadly, my lazy white male privileged ass couldn’t form a coherent thought that added value to the Holy War/free speech debate.

I finally considered surrendering my keyboard to the empty and divisive Us vs. Them nightly broadcast news rhetoric that fills my head with White Noise and clouds my judgment with an endless loop of Black Mirror episodes. But like a well-behaved hive-mind drone scanned and rescanned by the Borg, I instead allow creature comforts to absorb me time and time again. “Resistance,” as they aptly say, “is futile.”

Resistance, that is, to my recliner.

So I now must resist one chair for another much less comfortable chair and write, write, write before another crucial historic moment blows over. It may not be something that makes tomorrow’s headlines, but it holds meaning near and dear to my heart. It holds meaning for all of us because it appears we’re in danger of arbitrarily sugarcoating history–and stifling dissonant voices–for fear of offending others.

Words Do Not Mean Anything Today

I woke up this morning and noticed a petition circulating on Facebook to Remove Vanessa Place from the AWP Los Angeles Conference Committee. Before seeing the petition I did not know Vanessa Place or her work as a poet, performance artist, publisher or criminal defense attorney, but whenever I see artists gathering to protest another artist (or work of art), I am curious to see what prompted such action.

Some “artists of conscience” say that Place crosses the “what should be tolerated in the name of art” line because she is causing harm by dredging up our bigoted past and exploiting our nation’s shameful history of slavery. She is bastardizing literature on her Twitter feed and mocking uneducated black vernacular in Margaret Mitchell’s bestselling novel, Gone with the Wind, without context.

Others might say in Place’s defense that the negative reception to her work speaks to that fine subjective line that all art must cross to move mountains. Incorrigible mountains.

The group protesting Vanessa Place’s presence on the AWP Conference committee says “we find her work to be, at best, startlingly racially insensitive, and, at worst, racist.”

They “acknowledge Place’s right to exercise her creativity,” but they are imploring AWP to “remove her from her position of authority over writers of color” because her creative projects violate “an atmosphere of trust on the part of POC, LGBTQIA, and Differently Abled panel applicants.”

I myself am not typically absorbed by conceptual poetry–much of it often seems to beat an obviously dead horse. Perhaps this lack of enthusiasm speaks to my own internal struggles with inflammable content created to make one feel uncomfortable, but I defend a person’s right to produce it.

Moreover, I support the artist even when he or she creates what appears to be a seriously tone-deaf piece of work.

Neil Young and Tom Waits, whom I both adore, have lost me on select songs and albums over the years. I don’t penalize them for composing what I may find to be real clunkers. I may store or give it away. I may find the song unlistenable, the art unremarkable, the words illy chosen, but every artist has the right to take risks. Every artist has a track record of hits and misses. I may not applaud every outcome, but I don’t condemn the effort, even when it fails miserably.

Where do we draw the line as artists? When do we concede that an artist has gone too far?

As a publisher, I have taken umbrage in the past with fellow members of my indie lit community for fanning the flames of intolerance when they demanded an indie press remove a writer from an anthology because an unrelated essay she once wrote about rape reeked of tasteless insensitivity.

Is that where we now set the bar? If it’s tasteless or unfunny or weakly executed or misguided or blatantly offensive to anyone, it must go.

I wonder if Richard Pryor or Lenny Bruce or the creators of Monty Python or National Lampoon or The Onion or George Carlin or Chris Rock or Katt Williams or Howard Stern or Seth MacFarlane or Amy Schumer or Sarah Silverman or Jon Stewart would agree?

Oh wait, you say, comedy is different. Comedians get a pass. Their whole shtick is meant to invoke shudders and grimaces. They’re playing for laughs and shock value.

Really? I would submit that comedians are our foremost cultural critics and the comedians who really get under our skin and at the core of society’s ills often are the best at saying something offensive, but let’s consider other works and artists.

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What about novelist Alice Randall’s first novel, The Wind Done Gone, which tells some of what Gone with the Wind left untold about the racial underbelly of southern gentility? Should this book, published in 2002, never have seen the light of day because the author parodied the original work and shone a painful light on history?

Should Vanessa Place not be allowed to goad the publishers of Gone with the Wind or the Margaret Mitchell estate into suing her for copyright violations, all evidently to make an exclamation point about the incessant racism inherent in a book and movie that are lauded by millions?

Many protesters grant that Place should be allowed but just not rewarded for her cruel and unusual publicity-craving stunt on Twitter. But it appears Place had been appointed to the AWP committee because of her penchant for the avant-garde, not despite it.

Do the works of celebrated playwrights Samuel Beckett, Edward Albee, and Terrence McNally ever offend anyone?

How about Charles Bukowski? John Steinbeck? Henry Miller?

Oh wait, too pasty white for you?

How about Gabriel Garcia Marquez? Jorge Luis Borges? Pablo Neruda?

Oh shit, nine male writers in a row. I better watch my step.

How about Ayn Rand? Alice Walker (The Color Purple)? Eve Ensler (Vagina Monologues)?

Lil Kim? Lil Wayne?

Hey, I don’t listen to misogynist rappers and I mostly detest the school of Seth MacFarlane, Howard Stern, and Sarah Silverman humor (really, I can’t stand it), but if Seth, Lil Kim, and Sarah happened to be decision-makers on a committee deciding the “inclusivity and diversity in the panel makeup” of a session on race or gender, I wouldn’t protest their presence because I don’t like the way they think or act.

And who’s to say their participation wouldn’t result in a more diverse selection anyway?

Then again I’m a white, privileged male, so I guess I’m supposed to keep my mouth shut.

But I can’t. Because I’m defending writers of both genders and all races and creeds. And it especially incenses me that it has become almost trendy for writers to attack other writers who address highly sensitive and volatile issues of race, gender, and religion in their work and by doing so, perhaps subsequently offend a person, minority, or underrepresented group in the process.

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Art is meant to move us. Some art repels–and yes, offends–us. As Christians. As compassionate humans. As ethnic beings. And as artists, particularly when that art is poorly conceived or executed.

When art disgusts us, we do not want to see or hear it, nor do we want to expose our children to it. That’s our right as consumers and parents. We move on. We change the channel. We don’t go to that art exhibit or off-Broadway production. We don’t rent the movie or buy the book. We may criticize it or not even acknowledge it because it leaves us cold. We certainly do not support the artist we despise.

However, some of us in the arts community ostracize those we resent or misunderstand. We keep them at bay. We form an opinion about their art—and we decide whether it’s good, bad, or mediocre. Some of us also want to decide whether our peer’s work is acceptable for consumption. Or whether that person’s belief system is in line with our own. We interpret morally objectionable work and conclude that it lacks scruples and perpetuates systemic racism. We then marginalize it and shame the artist into either withdrawing from the public sphere or censoring herself.

And that knee-jerk reaction is unacceptable to me because it’s presumptuous, righteous, closed-minded, and yes, elitist in a paradoxical way. It encroaches on artistic freedoms that we enjoy as members of a free society.

If you’re a writer of conscience and you don’t like a person who is partly responsible for accepting a presentation you submitted to a committee because you find her art offensive, then that’s your tough luck. You don’t get to choose your judge.

You may complain, of course. That is your right as a member of AWP. But if AWP hears your gripe and still decides to stick by its guns and have Place stay on that committee, that’s AWP’s right.

The world will decide whether Vanessa Place’s work has value and whether she will advance in her career or be excluded. And you’re part of that world, so you get a vote.

But your entitlement as a member of society ends there. You’re entitled to your opinion, just as the artist is entitled to fabricate and bastardize and exploit and distort an abominable image to get her point across.

There’s no point in trying to stop art. Your intentions, I’m sure, are good. You do not want to see others suffer indignities. You want their voices to be heard, their pain to be abated. But let us not risk living in a world where authorities and self-appointed gatekeepers get to choose what is acceptable for print, stage, film, and cyberspace.

In the recent words of Village Voice advice columnist Andrew W.K., “I only humbly ask you to consider, with an open heart and open mind, the possibility that being offended is not an opportunity to take things away from the world, but an opportunity to add something to yourself.”

5/18 ARTICLE UPDATE: AWP summarily announced its decision to remove Place from the conference subcommittee because “many readers find Vanessa Place’s unmediated quotes of Margaret Mitchell’s novel to be unacceptable provocations, along with the images on her Twitter page” and the organization found that “perpetuating the controversy” would be unfair.

Image source: Cover of National Lampoon #7. Photograph by Ronald G. Harris.

Photo: Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi: Playing with Redemption

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