In 1953, Louis Aragon published a portrait by Pablo Picasso of the newly deceased Joseph Stalin in Les Lettres, an underground Communist journal. He received huge waves of negative feedback because the portrait lacked realism and was almost comical in nature, with arched eyebrows, a wide-eyed expression and big bushy mustache. Readers and supporters of Les Lettres felt personally offended because they expected a tribute to their leader and instead felt Picasso was more interested in presenting a design of his talent instead of a real image of Stalin. They blamed Aragon for allowing its publication because they thought he must have been unable to say no to someone with as much status as Picasso amongst other things. Aragon was totally taken off guard by the response. In a written reply to his readers, Aragon, who considered himself someone who was dedicated to the advocacy of content-oriented socialist-realism, sought out to discover how he could have missed the offensive qualities of Picasso’s portrait of Stalin. He writes:
…What is more, every touch was characteristic of Picasso, like a signature: the way of indicating the hair, the line at the bottom as in the portrait of Paul Eluard, and so on. So in the brief moment that I had the drawing in front of me, I saw forty Picasso signatures, and to me this was the essential thing, the proof that Picasso had drawn on the full range of his technique and on his experience in all its sincerity to create this image of Stalin. That is what I saw, and that is all I saw.
He later goes on to explain that this lack in judgment was a lack that he didn’t possess alone but shared with a whole group of people who think as he does, those “people of culture, who judge art more by its manner than by what it represents.” He had no idea it was offensive until it was pointed out to him by the hundreds from the outside of his cultural frame of reference cultivated in a bed of intellectualism and a bourgeois upbringing.
In August of 2014 a worldwide movement against the brutalization of black people and all people of color by the police and a culture built upon colonialism and racism originated in Ferguson, Missouri when an unarmed, black, teenage boy by the name of Michael Brown was shot by officer Darren Wilson while Michael Brown’s hands were in the air as accounted by several eye witnesses. The body of Michael Brown was left lying in the street for four hours which many have identified as more than just reminiscent of a lynching. Darren Wilson was not indicted. The “hands up, don’t shoot” movement blossomed in every corner of Eden.
Eyes were opened. Suddenly, black people died at the hands of the cops almost daily. Eric Garner’s suffocation by the cops rose out of the fragmented ashes of our not too distant memory. Trayvon Martin’s sweet face was in ours again. We thought about Oscar Grant. We thought about all of their mothers. We decided to inform people who perhaps did not realize black lives matter that black lives matter. We participated in thoughts about the world, about people and how to funnel rage in the right direction to produce change. These things all continue. Ferguson continues to rage.
If the angel of history had mirrored eyes, conceptual poetry would claim her for itself. Conceptual poetry claims to want nothing more but to reflect the world back at itself, to swing its big, sullen head back and forth in front of the wreckage of the past like a fat, white caterpillar before it has eyes. Mothlike, it raises its body toward a source and moves its plain wings in reality. In its presence, the point is to kill it before it kills you but you have the upper-hand since you are made out of thoughts and eyes and it remains blind. This will always be your fight against the mirrored, winged thing and also your victory because no matter how you end up, there is no way to avoid your own mind and your own eyes. No matter how everything swings around, your concept will surface as an equalizer and so will the concepts of every witness to its indolence and wide, segmented body made of the appropriation of every corner of reality. What could be more democratic? The whole historical world and the equalization of every thinker in its relation-that is of course if we’re willing to take ConPo’s word for it. ConPo really, really wants us to take their word for it! If there is a marked trait of ConPo that is indeed universal, it is its constant insistence on explaining itself, over and over and with the same explanation that people continually question. But we’re not here, they say. We’re blind and mute. Only you are here, you and this image of the world.
One day in history, Richard Serra said “art is not democratic, it is not for the people.”
On March 13, 2015, Kenneth Goldsmith made history. Kenneth Goldsmith gave the big book of the world his page. On it, it read “I am Kenneth Goldsmith.” It was a great accomplishment achieved by projecting a smiling picture of Michael Brown and publicly desecrating his body and prolonging the four hour lynching at the hands of the cops by reading this 18 year old boy’s autopsy report ending by choice in a description of his penis. Under “I am Kenneth Goldsmith” reads “I am 54 years old.” On March 13, 2015 Kenneth Goldsmith made history. He presented a piece of conceptual art to the world as he might have done on any other day of his career as a conceptual poet. However, what was startling about this particular day was as he lifted up his great mirror to the world that kills a boy with his hands in the air and leaves his body in the street, the only thing we could see reflected there was the page of himself. The only thing flapping wildly above us was his white, male body. Because, what Kenneth Goldsmith did on March 13, 2015 was redirect all the hurt and pain and anger that the whole world has felt, minimally in comparison to his mother and loved ones, onto himself. He made the death of this boy about himself and his artistic movement because part of what Kenneth Goldsmith loves, is calling out all the “haters.” 54 year old Kenneth Goldsmith likes to troll for haters. This gave Kenneth Goldsmith so many haters, he could spend an eternity rolling around in them. I do have a feeling though, if Kenneth Goldsmith, the 54 year old conceptual artist, were to apologize and stop being cruel and trolling for a while, he’d see a real decline in his “haters.”
Kenneth Goldsmith has, as is characteristic of conceptual poetry, explained his art in a defense after much negative feedback, feeling the need to explain what it is doing, defending his cultural positioning in a greater context of intellectual concepts. He feels it should be judged by its manner and the signature of his design and not by what it represents. He refuses to acknowledge what is angering people even though it feels suspicious that he would claim he doesn’t really see it. In fact, it really seems like that was indeed his intention, how could it not be? So, it’s not that he can’t see what we see, but rather, it is all that his art and thus contextualized story will allow him to admit.
What ruins the whole argument for conceptual poetry at this particular and historical moment in time (if conceptual poetry still is even a trace of its original and foundational idea of itself, or if in fact it is now just a facet of shock poetics) of this as an image of the world being presented from an egoless center of neutrality for consideration equally and democratically amongst all possible witnesses, is that one of those people would necessarily have to be Michael Brown’s mother. It falls apart when you put up an image of her boy and read his autopsy report to her and say it was just an artistic gesture, there was no cruelty behind it, there was no ego.
Lisa Cattrone is a poet living in California. She believes that poetry is the unconscious of the intellectual world which has a direct impact on the greater structures of the world and that what we do as a subculture and community, socially and in writing, actually matters.