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 firstname.lastname@example.org.