RITVO: Art in and out of the canon

I’m a big fan of Kenneth Reveiz ’12, the artist and activist behind the recently performed “Osama Play.” He’s a luminous and sensitive writer. But in an interview with the News (“Play to question ‘Yale values,'” March 19), he dismisses apolitical poetry and insists that dialogue with historical or classical material complies with oppressive ideologies those texts bolstered.

This is shortsighted. It’s a bit like saying we must ban the swastika, which Native American and Eastern cultures used for centuries as an artistic and theological signifier, because the Nazis appropriated it.

Saying there is no canon is as intellectually narrow-minded and fearful as saying there is only the canon. Gender-normative (or any other kind of normative) society may appropriate historical texts, but, like the swastika, they’re far more than that. Also, Plato was pretty gay.

Don’t let all the proscriptive weight of traditionalist interpretation appended to the canon demonize the works within it. There is as much anti-establishment rhetoric in Rousseau as in any of the great deconstructionists.

Read beyond the canon. But there is nothing wrong with reading brilliant things that happened to be written by white men of means. There are some who believe that interpreting the canon can be nothing more than power-affirming, status quo-assuring mental calisthenics. I believe works of art and interpretation aren’t entirely products of the normative societies that were their greenhouses. There are artists with their own seeds.

Sometimes art shakes us to our political core, and this is completely worthy. But it’s not the only kind of creativity, and it’s not the only meaningful congress with art. The accretion of other people’s (canonical) thoughts can force the artist into metaphysics and reflection hitherto uncharted.

Finding new things to say about the sun, considering all the things said about the sun, is valuable. Artists rely upon constraints to push their minds beyond the perseverative preoccupations that make up 99 percent of everyone’s thinking. Think of tradition as a constraint.

Creating from a blank template leads to the construction of a mirror. Instead, try injecting someone else’s thinking, or a whole couple of centuries’ worth of thinking. This includes but is not necessarily white-dude-thinking.

As for the “pastoral fetishism” Reveiz villifies — can’t we just say we find something beautiful? People have thought and persist in thinking about the sun, and they carry the burden of a poet’s pastoral word about the sun into their daily lives. Our reality is dominated by vignettes — some of them pretty trivial. Art changes those vignettes. I’m sure Reveiz would agree, and that’s why he wants so badly to shake us up and alter the way we critically think.

But away from the abstract ideologies that inform us as activists, there are aesthetic and interpersonal circumstances that are worth our time as artists. These circumstances fabricate our personalities every bit as much as leading an ideologically consistent and thought-through life. It’s okay for a poem to change the way we feel about tea. Recalling art as we live — the rapturous reframing of everyday instances by a painting or poem — helps makes us human.

And the act of reading a poem — the beautiful, unique neurochemical states it makes in our brain — has intrinsic value, even if the poem doesn’t turn us out into the world. To demand that art tickle our political pickle is to miss out on a host of valuable art-inspired feelings.

Reveiz may say that any aesthetic act that communicates with the status quo reinforces it. He may want us to consolidate our lives into the most impactful, ideologically propelled agents of change we can imagine. There might not be room in his idealization of the human being for her aesthetic to have any lapses into interpersonal pettiness, consumptive desires or unconscious affirmation of traditional roles. But this is not a realistic picture of how we live our lives.

On a moment-to-moment basis, we figure out how to love, hate, communicate. We are entrenched in a personal idiom. What to change, whether or not to change it, the status quo, counterculture: These are noble conversations, but they are not all there is to being human. Recognizing that leaves breathing room for art Reveiz would dismiss. Recognizing that might also be with the most effective way to change lives.

So my vote is for liberalism. It is a vote for aesthetic and ideological omnivorism. It is for thinking critically about beautiful books of all stripes, including Western books. It is for the notion that the artist may decide what his or her task is, and it is for the assertion that poems about beautiful flowers can change lives. So can “Osama Play.”

Max Ritvo is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at max.ritvo@yale.edu.


  • The Anti-Yale

    “the beautiful, unique neurochemical states it makes in our brain”

    Science defiling poetry.


  • dolokhov

    I have trouble understanding why anyone feels the need to defend the canon. The concept is loaded with such pretension and hegemony that it leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. ‘The Canon’ is a line that some choose to draw within culture. Its exact path is subject to debate, but it consistently follows a trajectory that is undeniably racist, sexist and classist. Regardless of whether its contents are ‘beautiful’ the thing itself needs to be strangled.

  • dolokhov

    ok one more comment.

    Poetry about any subject cannot and will never be separate from the political context in which it is produced, read, reread, and reproduced. If the author drank tea prepared by a slave while writing a canonical work, that tea and that slave should not be forgotten. Focusing on beauty to excuse a work for its willful ignorance of its own political context is no way to defend the canon.

    • Max_Ritvo

      Dolokhov, I hope my response to MC13 serves as a response to you. I would just say that anyone whose screenname is, if I’m not mistaken, named after one of my favorite War and Peace characters probably appreciates art in the open-minded way that I seek to foster in myself.

  • River_Tam

    > Gender-normative (or any other kind of normative) society may appropriate historical texts, but, like the swastika, they’re far more than that. Also, Plato was pretty gay.

    I laughed out loud.

    • Max_Ritvo


  • MC13

    Max, I don’t think any of the things you say are untrue, but I also don’t think they directly respond to (what I took to be) the substance both of Kenneth’s interview and of “Osama Play.” It didn’t seem to me that he was arguing against reading or engaging with “the Classics,” with ostensibly apolitical poems, with flowers, etc., but rather that he wants us to remember that these things always (always always always) have political consequences. Recognizing the beauty of a poem about flowers and that poem’s own denial of a political agenda doesn’t excuse the judgment of beauty or the poem itself from their political contexts. There are real consequences (epistemological and material) to the notion of a canon — to the affirmation of the centrality of a certain kind of art-making at the expense of others — and it’s absolutely essential that we force ourselves to confront and grapple with them daily. For reminding us of this, I am grateful to Kenneth and the others involved in “Osama Play.” And for reminding us that it can be ok to enjoy a flower, I am grateful to you!

    • Max_Ritvo

      Gracefully said, MC13. I was responding in large part to Kenneth’s claim that “People [at Yale] want antiquity, neoclassicism, pastoral fetishism, which are so entwined with a class and race that I am not that it’s just not possible that I can buy into them.” I was trying to suggest that there is a way of viewing these texts that is not necessarily entwined with “a class and race”–that while indeed it is always important to note the politics of a piece of writing and how it has been appropriated, that those largely “apolitical” poems do, in fact, lend themselves to beautiful analysis. I agree with you that we should take the judgements of beauty and the poem itself in its political context, but we are, in fact, able to make judgements about the beauty–suggesting that it is possible to put political context temporarily aside. When it comes to exegesis, I am all for omnivorism. Social and political commentary is awesome. Queer theory the hell out of a poem. Post-Colonial it until it’s something I never would’ve realized without you. But it is, in my opinion, possible to judge some works of art based on interpersonal and aesthetic metrics which are valuable. I want to ensure that the art conversation is as diverse and multidimensional as possible. I dislike the idea of disenfranchising a large corpus of beautiful works wholesale. I’m not saying that the canon should even be “centrally” considered, as you have suggested–just that works of art are put on even footing, and don’t have their past shady appropriations held against them.

      • MC13

        “I want to ensure that the art conversation is as diverse and multidimensional as possible.” word :)

  • devicus13

    What exactly is the canon being discussed here? Is it the promulgation of the idea of a privileged list of all-time best works, or the works themselves that make up the list we happen to study today? Anybody who has studied any art with any historical depth knows that the canon is always changing, and that those changes reflect the changing attitudes and values of the times. We study those changes because we believe historical perspective is valuable for leading the life of a historical being. Being able to do this at all already makes you somewhat privileged, so just accept that, and remember to be responsible with your privilege when you leave school.

    Some works were talked about a lot more than others either in their own time period, or by others in succeeding periods, and so they have a privileged status as access-points to the thought of other times and peoples. We don’t have to agree with what they say, and many times it’s best that we don’t, but if one wishes to responsibly claim they understand the step in our historical development as a culture that was the 18th century, it is essential to have read Rousseau and Voltaire, because they are the ones who people read and talked about the most who changed society then. You can read Alfieri too if you want. You don’t have to agree with any of them, but if you refuse to even read them, or if you read Alfieri because you like his politics but refuse to read Rousseau because you don’t like his, then you will simply be ignorant of 18th century thought, and will sound like an idiot if you put on airs of knowing about it later.

    If we are talking about the works themselves taught today as the canon, and reading for examples of beauty, then I almost agree with dolokhov that there is no need to defend them, but for different reasons. Many of those works have stood the test of time whether the people of one particular culture or period has liked them and read them or not. They hardly need to be defended because if they are actually beautiful then their beauty will be the best argument they have if we let them speak to us.

  • elijah

    I’m confused, Max, as to your focus on “beauty” as the distinguishing feature between political and apolitical readings of art. Is not beauty just as limiting a way of judging art as is a rabid, partisan adhesion to queer theory? Sure, call a poem about flowers beautiful. But the interesting thing to talk about is not its beauty. It is, rather, precisely what you mentioned at the end of your article — how it has the power to change lives. How it WORKS. What it does and how it does it. The function of a poem can be entirely self-generative; it need not be political or social in nature. But I would caution against putting “beauty” as the flagship of apolitical readings.

    I feel like we agree on most things, and probably this as well, so I’m curious as to why you insist on our ability to respect a poem simply because it is beautiful. I don’t think that’s saying much about a poem than “I like this poem” — which, of course, is saying quite a lot!