How to Make Art Riskier: The Case of Kenneth Goldsmith

An interesting article in the New Yorker by Alec Wilkinson discusses the case of Kenneth Goldsmith. Goldsmith is an avante-garde poet who wrote a sort of anti-poetry meant to challenge the idea that art in the age of the internet means coming up with personal things to say and special ways to say it.  Instead he would re-write an edition of the New York Times, or write down everything he said for a day.  He got into trouble with political ethnic poets for applying this approach to Michael Brown’s autopsy report.  The irony of Wilkinson’s piece was that by his own account Goldstein’s goal in his work was to provoke anger and outrage, but when he actually succeeded in provoking and angering some people he became unhappy.

It seems like Goldstein was interested in playing the art game of simulated outrage.  In our society (or certain elite precincts of it at any rate) the artist has license to offend.  People go to museums hoping to see canvasses and sculptures that provoke them. Others buy poetry magazines or novels that they hope will find outrageous.

I declare this to be ridiculous (October 4, 5:21 pm, Pacific Standard Time).  If your goal is to outrage and provoke you must not do it in a context that gives one permission to provoke. That’s just silly — like telling your friends to throw you a surprise party.  If you truly want to provoke you must do it without providing your audience a get-out-of-being-offended free card.

I offer the following suggestions:

Avant Garde poets should work as grief counselors, court reporters, and acountants.  They should offer speech acts that are deliberately ambiguous, ironic, or semantically oblique in contexts where their auditors will be outraged.  When a father calls a hospital to see if his son is okay the artist should answer “son son son okay okay not okay okapi o’casey oneiric out out brief candle” and hang up.

Avant Garde actors who seek to drain all emotional cadence out of their performances and achieve the montonous sing-song of ancient ritual should use this cadence when talking to their lovers.

Other artists should transcend our categories entirely.  They should sleep in trees and leap down to bite cats and in prison eat their meals with their feet.

Needless to say none of them should ever ever admit (much less declare) that they are artists — not to granting institutions, or to other people, or ideally, to themselves.

People should probably stop using the word art, or perhaps, should apply it in new ways.  The next day Mitt Romney acquires a company he should call what he is doing conceptual art.  Everybody should think either more or less but not the current amount they are thinking — unless they want to.

The ethnic poets who were offended by Kenneth Goldsmith’s art should hang out with Romney and the guy biting cats and figure out what their next move should be.  Kenneth Goldsmith should hide under the table taking notes, and then take everybody out to a steak dinner with Michael Brown and the man who shot him.  After dessert they should watch t.v.


7 thoughts on “How to Make Art Riskier: The Case of Kenneth Goldsmith

  1. This was an interesting reflection. I will look him up and try to see if I can grow creatively from seeing how he goes about challenging the status quo. Have a great week ahead. x

  2. N.S. Palmer says:

    Bravo. Well said.

    If a real artist has something to say that incidentally offends someone, then so be it. That’s part of the job. However, offense for offense’s sake is stupid except as a way to attract attention, and that has nothing to do with art.

    However, I admit that I would pay money to see artistic poseurs “sleep in trees and leap down to bite cats and in prison eat their meals with their feet.” It wouldn’t be art, but it would be entertainment.

  3. Mikey says:

    I have a friend who behaves a bit like that artist. Sometimes I think he’s in touch with something beyond and sometimes I think he’s schizophrenic. It’s kind of a tough call.

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