Arts & Culture

Racial controversy over poem ends conference event early

Poem using text of Michael Brown’s autopsy report provokes anger at “Interrupt” conference

Contributing Writer
Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Speakers specializing in poetry, fine arts and literary studies gathered at the Perry and Marty Granoff Center for the Creative Arts this weekend to explore the impact of digital culture at the third “Interrupt” conference. But these conversations were largely displaced by controversy over poet Kenneth Goldsmith’s performance of a poem that uses text from Michael Brown’s autopsy report.

The conference focused in part on “uncreative writing” — the poetic style pioneered by Goldsmith, who attended the Rhode Island School of Design, teaches poetics and poetic practice at Penn and was named the Museum of Modern Art’s first Poet Laureate.

With the unprecedented number of texts available in the digital age, Goldsmith focuses on refashioning preexisting texts instead of creating new ones. During his Friday night performance entitled “The Body of Michael Brown,” Goldsmith used the preexisting text of Michael Brown’s autopsy report.

Goldsmith projected an image of Brown’s high school graduation photo and recited the autopsy report with only slight alterations, changing the order of the text and translating the medical vocabulary into layperson’s terms. He detailed explicit images from the report, notably the entry and exit wounds of the bullets, and ended the piece with the autopsy’s description of Brown’s genitals as “unremarkable.”

Many audience members and other performers felt “profoundly uncomfortable” following Goldsmith’s performance, said co-organizer Francesca Capone GS, who is studying literary arts. Two other scheduled performers expressed reluctance to present, and so organizers decided to end the event early, Capone said.

Many conference attendees criticized Goldsmith, a white male, for appropriating a black body for his poetry, thereby aestheticizing racial violence.

“As much as 20th century art and literature would like to promote the erasure of the author, as Goldsmith does, he is enacting a history of violence and appropriation of marginalized bodies,” said Rachel Ossip ’15, a fifth-year student in the Dual Degree program.

“This is linked to an author’s position and privilege, which cannot be ignored,” Ossip added. “Art should never be an excuse for racial violence.”

Goldsmith chose not to participate in the discussion following his performance, said John Cayley, co-organizer of the conference and professor of literary arts.

One performer began and then stopped her performance, walking off stage while saying “Never mind, I don’t know what I was thinking,” Ossip said. Audience members’ reactions during the discussion ranged from mild critique to anger and condemnation, she said.

Cayley and Capone said they had no prior knowledge of the content of Goldsmith’s performance, as they did not screen the text beforehand. They added that they believed they should place “confidence and trust” in all of the artists attending the conference, including Goldsmith.

Cayley wrote in an email to Goldsmith, “neither ‘Interrupt 3’ nor Brown was in any way responsible for your choice of performance or for the reception of what you chose to perform.”

Criticism of Goldsmith’s performance erupted on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter in the wake of the event. Goldsmith tweeted that he had even received a death threat.

In a March 15 Facebook post defending his piece, Goldsmith wrote, “It is a horrific American document, but then again it was a horrific American death.”

The absence of “editorializing” allows a document to speak “for itself in ways that an interpretation cannot,” Goldsmith also wrote on Facebook.

As the controversy further ignited online, Goldsmith wrote on Facebook Tuesday that he requests that “Brown University not make public the recording of my performance … There’s been too much pain for many people around this and I do not wish to cause any more.”

Saturday’s scheduled events proceeded as planned and included a presentation on “ffabschrifting,” a new artistic movement that brings attention to the form in which texts are presented. The day also included a presentation from Johanna Drucker, professor of bibliographical studies in the department of information studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The conference concluded Sunday with an open discussion that included prepared responses from attendees. In the wide-ranging conversation, Goldsmith’s performance became a jumping-off point for a discussion of underrepresentation of people of color in poetry, fine arts, higher education and the “Interrupt” conference itself. Despite “tremendous efforts to diversify the program,” organizers’ inability to do so reflects the issues of diversity in the arts, Cayley said.

The previous headline of this article, “Racial controversy over poem ends conference early,” incorrectly implied that controversy ended the entire conference, not an event during the conference, early. The Herald regrets the error.


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  1. Student '15 says:

    This is disgusting. Not because an artist attempted to interpret a current event in the way he knows best, but because a group of myopic intellectual bullies attempted to impose their interpretation of “propriety” on Goldsmith’s art and demand it substitute for our own.

    You, fine students, are following in the admirable footsteps of several other groups who have tried to silence art. That you are doing so because of the racial identity of its artist puts you in an even nastier class. Though I used to think it an absurd proposition that you would become violent (as your thought-policing predecessors have), that Goldsmith received death threats forces me to reconsider.

    I don’t know what the future holds for you. I suppose the best I can hope for is reassessment and apology. But I would gladly settle for irrelevance.

    • Goldsmith tweeted that he received a death threat. I think it’s a bit silly to condemn the students as a whole because of one reported threat. There’s no thought policing here. The conference let the artists perform what they wanted.

      As far as criticism goes, I see no issue in criticizing the piece. Clearly whatever the artist meant was not what was received.

    • honestly…

  2. Jacqueline Daly says:

    This revamping of previous written work seems no different than Cindy Sherman’s early art work recreating movie scenes such as Alfred Hitchcock’s movies.

    • Student '16 says:

      I really don’t think this is comparable at all. Sherman recreated fictional film scenes. Michael Brown was a person. An unarmed Black child who was shot dead and left lying in his own blood on the street for hours like roadkill when he could have been receiving medical attention. He was a human being, not a fictional film or fictional character. Not an object. And Goldsmith’s response to his death is to play refrigerator-magnet poetry games with his autopsy, to rearrange its details so that all Michael Brown’s life (and death) amounted to in the end was his ‘unremarkable’ penis. That is disgusting. Absolutely disgusting.

      Michael Brown’s family has suffered enough. Black Americans who fear this same thing will happen to them or their children–because it DOES happen, constantly, at staggering rates–have suffered enough. Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Michael Brown, is a free man who still has the privilege of being alive. Kenneth Goldsmith is a white man who still has the privilege of being alive. He doesn’t need to worry about meeting Michael Brown’s fate.

      To make an object and a cheap penis joke out of Brown’s death, which has already caused so much pain, is disrespectful and an outrage, honestly. How can any human being with some shred of compassion think this is just ‘art’ immune from critique?

      • I really wish I could see the piece because I kind of assumed the whole point of the piece would have been about the objectification/dehumanization of black bodies and wouldn’t his autopsy be a great source material for that? With regards to the penis joke – I would have assumed that would be highly relevant to the idea. For example the black penis is a major topic in the porn industry which often portrays black men as literally just gangbangers with extremely large penises.

        It sounds like my assumptions are totally wrong though. The article doesn’t really delve in to what the actual piece was or the real substance of the criticism- the only quote used is that it’s a white person appropriating a black body as though to imply that if a black person had done the exact same piece it would have been acceptable. If the piece was just wholly insensitive then it shouldn’t really matter if it was a black poet or white poet, so for me at least, I’m left wondering what this piece was that sounds like it wasn’t at all what I imagined (which to me would be acceptable regardless of who performed it) and people seem to think was only a problem because the performer/author was white and not black.

      • Child? Talk about rose-colored glasses. I bet you’ve only used the 14-year old version of Trayvon, too.

        And by all means, do tell us what the medical attention for a gunshot wound to the head is with no pulse on arrival of EMS.

  3. Artist '15 says:

    Cue the “you’re silencing art” idiocy in 3…2…1…

    But in all seriousness, the piece was performed, many others openly expressed their discomfort and disgust with the piece for many legitimate reasons. In response to these critiques, the artist decided he did not want the piece spread. The only real problem here was the violent idiot who thought a death threat was responsible. Just about everything else here is exactly how free speech is supposed to work.

    • Student '17 says:

      While I agree that there were well-reasoned and legitimate claims to the piece being called insensitive, I don’t believe the free speech argument is “idiocy”.

      While much of the criticism of the poem has been orderly and peaceful, clearly there was a threatening element of certain criticisms, so much so that Goldsmith felt uncomfortable attending the following discussion (which was before the death threat was made). As a result, Goldsmith and possibly others are not likely to write any more provocative (albeit in many ways a little insensitive) pieces like this one, which would stifle discussion on the topic on Brown’s campus (if Goldsmith hadn’t written and preformed this, many people, myself included, wouldn’t have encountered this interesting topic in the first place).

  4. “Many conference attendees criticized Goldsmith, a white male, for appropriating a black body for his poetry, thereby aestheticizing racial violence.”
    Actually he appropriated an autopsy report that was most likely prepared by a white male or female. That said, Goldsmith deserved to be attacked for trying to be an ally because that’s the purpose that allies serve. As a white male, Goldsmith should have lived by the non-activist golden rule: “For any matter related to POC, keep your mouth shut and keep your distance because after you graduate the real world doesn’t care.”

  5. “Appropriating a black body for his poetry, thereby aestheticizing racial violence.” What? Learn to speak proper English. Perhaps terms like “racially insensitive” or “inappropriate” or “crossed the line” are what you’re looking for?

  6. DecentDiva says:

    Hmmm. There seems to be a certain sameness among many of the below posts offering conceptual defenses of “Kenny G,” as he calls himself. The appending of “’16,” “’15,” “’17” etc. to a number of the posts attempting to defend Goldsmith looks a bit suspicious.

  7. ShadrachSmith says:

    Michael Brown was a feral thug who apparently committed suicide by cop.

    Whoever considers him an icon is truth-proof 🙂

    • what are you even saying

      • ShadrachSmith says:

        What part of active voice, declarative sentences, in the english language most challenges your comprehension?

        Nobody told you that the Hands Up part is a lie?
        How could an scholarly gentleman like you possibly not know that?

  8. Iza Bourne Greene says:

    Goldsmith is NOT the name of a white man. Do you progressive/communist have anything better to do than insult and slander the white race?

  9. I went to Interrupt two years ago, and a white female artist, introduced by a former professor of mine as a ‘controversial’ artist, stood up and performed a poem that was mostly her saying “n*gger” over and over for at least five minutes straight.
    I didn’t want to stand up and walk out because I didn’t want to be “that” black person, and I didn’t want to seem as if I couldn’t be objective about art.
    I wish I had had the courage to call it for what it was: violence the speaker doesn’t understand, put forward as art.
    I’m really disappointed that that kind of insensitivity is back at Interrupt again.

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