Organization and Aesthetics
A Response to Josef Kaplan’s “Theses on the Aesthetics of Violence”
by Marie Buck
In the latest issue of Lana Turner: A Journal of Poetry and Opinion, Josef Kaplan has published “Manifesto #1: Theses on the Aesthetics of Violence.” The manifesto offers a new narrative of gentrification, one in which the (allegedly voluntary) poverty of bohemian poets and artists functions to assure the wealthy that impoverished people enjoy their poverty. Art and poetry “assure the wealthy they will stay that way,” and “residents of low income and working class communities hate poets and artists so much because they know that poets and artists are unwilling, through means other than art, to protect their communities from exploitation.” In an interview about the manifesto on ArtTalks, Kaplan rejects the “misguided handwringing” and debate, common in many poetry circles, about the relationship between poetry and politics: “Manifesto #1” means to “highlight, in an overtly antagonistic and somewhat irresponsible way, this distinction between what poetry is and what an actual politics is, which is the seizure and redistribution of material resources through struggle. Poetry can’t do that. Poetry has to do something else.”
I agree. Avant-garde handwringing over the politics of poetry, often by people with little interest in actual political struggle, is loathsome. The prevalent assumption that poetry and art are or should be political has served as a self-aggrandizing excuse for political inaction, or at least an obfuscation of the importance of actual political struggle. But in the context of the rise in struggle over the past year and half—the Arab Spring, Madison, Occupy, protests for Trayvon Martin, the Quebec student strikes, and hundreds of less-visible struggles that may not have happened but as part of this chain of events—it becomes clear that poetry does not equal politics. If poetry is politics, how do we describe these struggles? Clearly poetry is something different, and we were temporarily blinded to this fact by a lack of actual political struggle in the last three decades. (This is not to suggest that nothing went on in those decades—but obviously, a dam has burst, and the moment we’re in now does not allow us to think of a book of poems as being in the same realm as a protest—yet something about the character of the political scene in the 90s or early 2000s did.)
So poetry is not politics, and the handwringing over the relationship between poetry and politics seems to be a result of cynicism: we couldn’t imagine masses of people resisting the political order as it was, but we nonetheless sought to be on the right side of history and registered our dissatisfactions with capitalism in poems and conference papers. And so, at least in aggregate, we have figured poetry and art not as a part of a political movement, the way that the Black Arts Movement, for example, figured itself in relation to the Black Power Movement, but rather as a substitute for a political movement.
And so I agree that much poetry has had the effect of “[deintensifying] class struggle,” and that poets and artists must change the way they interface with the wealthy. But Kaplan moves from the idea that we must “renegotiate how we communicate … exploitation to the wealthy” to the assertion that “the best way for exploitation to be communicated to the wealthy is through violence.” He advocates that poets mug wealthy gentrifiers. In the interview at ArtTalks, which is more conversational and less polemic in tone, Kaplan clarifies that he’s not kidding when he’s talking about the mugging, though he couldn’t likely ever do it himself. He also talks about the possibility of looting Foot Lockers:
Poetry can signify certain things that relate to it, but a poem is never going to, I don’t know, loot a Foot Locker. It’s not something you can expect a poem to do. And every Foot Locker should obviously be looted. So, if you want to do political work, maybe you should loot a Foot Locker instead of writing a poem. Or write a poem and then loot a Foot Locker. As long as the Foot Locker gets looted.
After critiquing artists and poets for substituting discourse for political practice, Kaplan actually reproduces the same tendency. The tone feels rather hyperbolic, but regardless of whether we take the Foot Locker suggestion as tongue-in-cheek, no one who reads this is about to go out and loot a Foot Locker. So this has the feel of a rhetorical gesture acting as political intervention. More importantly, though—if a reader does go loot a Foot Locker (or mug a gentrifier), what political effect will this have? The reader will get caught and have some sort of legal trouble. Or the reader will not get caught, and will have fucked up a Foot Locker, or made gentrifiers slightly less safe. Morally speaking—of course all Foot Lockers should be looted. But that does not mean that this is a useful courses of action that could actually “[break] apart the system.” Assuming that Kaplan is earnest, and the manifesto and interview are not just discursive gestures, but prompts to go act in the world, mugging or looting are both individualized gestures that place the looter on the ethical side of history, perhaps, but do little to actually create the conditions for a revolution. Kaplan critiques the substitution of (an individualized, ethical-but-not-practical) art for politics, but himself substitutes individualized, ethical-but-not-practical acts for the kinds of collective action that can actually lead to change.
Why not suggest that the reader go to some type of protest or organizing meeting? Or join or start a revolutionary organization, one that attempts to engage large numbers of people? To act collectively, in a way that wins large numbers of people to revolutionary politics through political experience, means that your politics will not be pure—a fact that I think artists and academics tend to balk at. But, if we actually want to win revolution, we must struggle alongside people with all sorts of bad politics in order to build mass social movements ultimately capable of transforming society. For instance, as revolutionaries, we must struggle for reforms, which by nature contradict the idea of immediate revolution (an impossible thing anyway). But collective struggle and the difficult work of convincing people of anti-capitalist politics are ultimately the only means of making the change that we want to see.
Certainly, there are arguments to the contrary—to some extent my critique here is a socialist critique of what I take to be a version of anarchist politics. But the sketch that Kaplan provides here is a fairly unsatisfying one: mugging will slow the process of gentrification and provide poets and artists the means to arm themselves against the state. Do we really expect to go head-to-head with the United States in militarized armed struggle and win? Surely not; the power of those of us with an investment in changing this system lies in our numbers and in our relationship to work—we’re the ones producing and distributing things.
If our differences here do appear to be a simple division between a certain mode of anarchist politics and a certain mode of Marxist politics, this division remains relevant. Why does anarchism appear to be increasingly popular among artist-types and academics? Part of its appeal is precisely that it echoes the logic in which art and poetry substitute for political action: in both anarchism and what I’m going to term aesthetic substitution, one acts alone, intervening individually into a scene; individuality and its attendant drama and glamor is at the center, generally; there is no need to actually convince others and come to agreement; there is an emphasis on individual political/aesthetic purity rather than a discussion of how to actually effect change. That is, both arts/academic communities and anarchist communities tend to valorize individual ethics over effectiveness—the point is to be on the right side of history, rather than to change history. There’s a lack of belief that we could actually change the system. Relatedly, there’s a certain snobbishness to both—a sense that you’d have to be naïve to actually imagine winning, and a sense that the artist or the looter-mugger-anarchist gets it, while everyone out there fighting in non-glamorous ways for a reform doesn’t realize how fucked and unethical the system really is. In some ways, Kaplan’s examples of revolutionary action—burning shit down, looting Foot Locker, and mugging wealthy people—are dramatic, martyr-producing corollaries to the consumer politics that Kaplan is so critical of. Why do people like the idea that you can change the world by buying organic food at the farmers’ market, or by writing a poem? Because it’s a lifestyle choice you can make alone and about which you can feel ethical. Why “burn shit down”? Because it’s an extremely difficult, self-sacrificial choice you can make alone and about which you can feel ethical. If we actually want to change society, though, we must do the work of acting collectively, and convincing masses of people of the need—and more difficult, the possibility—of revolution. Tough shit, poets. This is not a thing you can do on your own.
There is a second point here that must be addressed. In cleaving poetry from politics, Kaplan moves us away from the tired and irritating question of how poetry and politics relate. This question is generally asked in a self-congratulatory way that suggests poetry must be political, and often asked by people with little investment in changing the system. So it is good to hear this: there is nothing inherently political about poetry; “poetry and art are formal categories.” We can note that, of course, anything in the world, including art, reflects the societal, economic, and political climates of its time. (And we should be clear that the interventions of Black Arts Movement writers and others to do away with the notion of a universal aesthetic were crucial.) But to describe all art as “political” robs us of a word with which to describe actual political activity, which is clearly something different. So, I agree with Kaplan: poetry is not inherently ‘political’ in any meaningful way. But Kaplan turns this observation into a prescription:
the idea that art or poetry would or should have any kind of political value, that idea might be a cultural expectation that doesn’t have a lot of bearing on what poetry and art are, actually, in the world… I’ll absolutely argue against the idea that poetry can or should generate a kind of social good – that’s bullshit, and it makes for boring, affirmative, congratulatory poetry.
In our current poetic climate of what I’m calling aesthetic substitutionism, poetry that claims to be a political or social good often does seem boring and congratulatory. But I do not think that we need to altogether throw out the idea of genuinely political poetry. Poetry can never effectively substitute for building political power, but that does not mean that poems cannot aspire to be politically meaningful. Historically, plenty of political art has presented itself, and functioned, not as a substitute for building political power, but as a product of political action. I am thinking particularly of the proletarian novels of 1930s or the poetry of the Black Arts Movement. No doubt, some of this art was shitty and some of it was amazing. But we do not have to make our art purposefully apolitical—though we might, and that’s fine.
What does it mean, in our current moment, to make genuinely political art, art that does not attempt to substitute for building political power, but which is instead a product of political activity, or a means of further political activity or organization? If the feeling is that political art is boring, perhaps we need to make better political art. And we might well be better able to do this in the midst of the current surge in struggle than we have been in the midst of the defeats of the last few decades. In our (understandable) cynicism we have often suggested that aesthetically registering the horrors of capitalism is the best we can do. But what do we do when very large numbers of people are continually more and more certain that capitalism is horrible? If we begin to have a poetry culture in which political action is the politics, rather than art, we will likely produce poems that bear some relationship to political movements and therefore look very different than poems created in the substitutionist mode. What would it be to write poems as support for actual political activity, for instance? Art is not inherently political, but we can make political art, if we want to, by thinking of it in relation to political practice—rather than as a substitute for such activity.
Alex Ventura of Art Talks closes out his interview of Kaplan by asking “do you think that people who make art tend to resist political organization in general, that people who make art or write poetry are put off by the idea of hierarchy for example, or the idea of being organized to a common goal?” Kaplan answers no, that it’s the threat of arrest that keeps people away. But risking arrest does not equal political organization, and I think Ventura is actually dead-on, if only with regard to the artists and poets of recent years. Because the standard assumption is that all art is political, people who make art are able to maintain the idea that they’re doing political work while not actually engaging with the organization or collective decision-making necessary to do political work. On top of that, academics and artists often tend to be intellectually oriented to insider-y conversations—and doing political work generally means interacting with people of all sorts of backgrounds, in situations where knowledge of experimental poetry, or whatever, is not particularly useful. All of this may create some resistance to the idea of doing this kind of work.
Obviously, many poets and artists and academics have been doing political work for a long time. And many more have been doing political work in the past year or so. But if you want to do something political, and currently mostly make poems, you should not mug someone, or feel guilty for not mugging someone. Instead, go to a protest or an organizing meeting of some sort. There are many, many things happening. If you live in NYC, you might find out how to support locked-out Con Ed workers or go to an organizing meeting to work toward ending stop & frisk, for instance. If you live somewhere else, I can possibly help you figure out something going on where you live. Probably most of whatever organizing work you do won’t feel as glamorous as burning shit down or writing a poem, and sometimes it will be quite boring. But by acting collectively, we can actually win.