Sunday, September 21, 2014

Alain Locke's Proper Burial + Poem

Alain Locke,
by Winold Reiss, c. 1921
In 1954, Alain Leroy Locke (b. 1885), one of the chief intellectual forebears and anchors of the Harlem Renaissance, an important theoretician of philosophical pragmatism, and the author who coined the term "New Negro," which was the title of his landmark, eponymous anthology and essay, announcing the arrival of a new artistic, social and cultural movement, died in New York City. For many decades Locke had been Professor and Chair of Philosophy at Howard University, from which he was temporarily dismissed for three years in the 1920s, before being reinstated, for teaching a course on race relations. It was at Howard that he taught Toni Morrison and many other major African American artists and other cultural and political figures.

A native of Philadelphia, Locke had graduated from Harvard College with highest honors and been elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and in 1907 became the first African American recipient of a Rhodes Scholarship, allowing him to study at University of Oxford's Hertford College, after which he studied at the University of Berlin, before returning to Harvard to receive his Ph.D. in philosophy in 1918. All of the important figures in the Harlem Renaissance knew and interacted with Locke; for some, like Langston Hughes, who would study at Howard in part through Locke's urging, he played a key role in cultivating their intellectual development. Like a number of his fellow Harlem Renaissance peers, Locke was also gay, though this was not widely known beyond his close associates and other Harlem Renaissance figures until after his death.

The container that held Locke's ashes
(Astrid Riecken/Washington Post)
Despite his stature, upon his death and after his cremation, his ashes were not interred anywhere, but passed into the custody of his estate executor, dear friend and fellow educator, Arthur Huff Fauset, half-brother of Harlem Renaissance author Jesse Redmon Fauset. After Fauset's death in 1983, his 91-year-old niece, Conchita Porter Morison, received the cremated remains and she contacted her friend, Sadie Mitchell, who also knew Locke and Arthur Fauset. Mitchell would serve as an "intermediary" with Locke's longtime employer to secure a place for the late philosopher's remains. When Howard coordinator of music history J. Weldon Norris traveled to Philadelphia in the mid-1990s, Mitchell passed on the ashes to him. From Norris the remains went to Howard's renowned archives, the Moorland Spingarn Research Center, where Locke's papers are stored, and then on to the W. Montague Cobb Research Laboratory, where they were repackaged in a simple urn and placed in a locked safe by then director Mark Mack.

Finally, as Frances Stead Sellers reported in a Washington Post article on September 12, Locke's ashes were buried in Capitol Hill Congressional Cemetery, in a September 13 ceremony funded by African-American Rhodes Scholars, of whom there are over six dozen now. This tribute and proper memorial, with an engraved granite headstone, arose during planning by the Association of American Rhodes Scholars, in conjunction with Howard, for a symposium to honor the centenary of Locke's Rhodes Scholarship. In the process of conceiving the symposium, the Association learned of the status and location of Locke's remains, and through the financial support of Black Rhodes Scholars, he is now properly laid to rest.

According to Stead Seller's article, his headstone appears as follows:
Alain Leroy Locke, it reads, 1885-1954: “Herald of the Harlem Renaissance, Exponent of Cultural Pluralism.” On the reverse side are four symbols: a nine-pointed Baha’i star representing the religion that emphasizes the spiritual unity of humankind; a Zimbabwe bird, the emblem of the African country formerly called Rhodesia, which the American Rhodes community adopted; a lambda, symbolizing gay and lesbian rights; and Phi Beta Sigma, the fraternity Locke joined at Howard.

Alain Locke, by Betsy
Graves Reyneau
Some years ago, I wrote a short poem for Locke that I've never published, but in his honor, I'm posting it here. He was, as the Washington Post article notes, and as Toni Morrison described in her public conversation with Ishmael Reed at Margaret and Quincy Troupe's Harlem Arts Salon last year, utterly "fastidious,"  so I hope the poem possesses some of the spirit of his rigor too. He was an extraordinary figure, one of so many of his time and era, who have made so much that followed him possible, in this country and beyond. I thus share with you "Alain Locke at Stoughton Hall" (Stoughton is one of the freshman dorms at Harvard, Sever is the home of Harvard's philosophy department, William Henry Lewis was one the college's first and black football stars, William Monroe Trotter one of its famous black activist alumni. Du Bois needs no introduction).

Between their theses he writes his own.
Between "the general theory of value"
and "beauty consisting in ideal forms"
he pens fresh hypotheses. Back, past
Pliny and Mary Locke to the first ones,
speechless and staggering sick with sea
and living memories of sour-sour, gold-
weights, delta deities ghosting

into mastlines. Dread of these forlorn

shores. Dread of salty tongues' renaming
them, their own names buried under winter-

ed paving stones. In the spirits' graveless

inquietude, the cries of two centuries'

mute nights, he has grasped his nation's
true history: resistance and the cold-
hearted ability to make oneself
anew remain his true inheritance.
His journey from colored Philadelphia
to the Square: the hero's solitary
trajectory.  Within the dreamsongs
guiding him out of yesterday's

sorrows furl maps of righteousness
and Quaker industry. Here he treads
as he did through the schoolyards
and alleyways of fists, brick valleys
of indifference. Tiny warrior,
he holds little fear of being the queer
exception defying local customs,
minister of his own natural law.
As for fools and impolitic white
people, he suffers them coolly as any
politico, performing the acrobatics
by which he balances his days
with "master minds" in Sever, nights
at the library, the Boylston laboratories.
Someday some will claim they knew
him. Some days he thinks they'll recall him
more swiftly than the footballer Lewis,
the agile scholar and gem-eyed DuBois,
the Boston-born rebel Trotter.

You are the emblem of Negro genius.
You are the affirmation of the plural cause.
You are the angel gliding between histories
you must use and ones that silence you,
man, African, American, Harvardian, human.

Amid this desert of touch, threadbare

society of friends who can never

truly comprehend or love you,

amid the arid propositions of Kant,
Plato and Aristotle, Hegel and Santayana,
which once might have been your sextants,
you chart your passage into the bay
of your people’s stories, voyage

of a mind and vision honed.

Sunday now, and distant bells summon

hungry souls. Freedom is sailing
by the compass of possibility, fearless,
even if with no ship or sea at all.
You will stay and write until
your heart runs out.  You will take this
dark knowledge and spread it.

Copyright © John Keene, 2014. All rights reserved.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Random Photos

Lying down in the street,
literally, in Chelsea
Waffles and coffee, on 32nd Street
A plea from the gutter
Tranquility, in Chelsea
Street typist, Williamsburg
Painting an awning, Chelsea
Street festival, Grove St., Jersey City 
Afropunk Festival flyers #standforsomething 

Outside the luxe new "Art House" development,
Jersey City 
Bright plumage, PATH station 
Street backdrop, Midtown
Poster (in Brooklyn?)
Poster (in Brooklyn?) 
Street string sculpture, Williamsburg 
Locals playing a board game,
LaGuardia Park, Williamsburg
Another tower going up
amidst (older) Williamsburg 
Filming, Chelsea 
String sculpture on fence,
Jersey City 
Street art for sale,
Something I often do,
photographing a building site
Impromptu corner
Urbanworld Film Festival, Chelsea
Jersey City

Saturday, September 13, 2014

On Jeff Koons at the Whitney Museum

What is art? What is "good" art? What do we mean by "good" when we speak of art? Does "good" here equate with quality, if we consider the roots of the concept of art in the West lying in the concept of techne? Is this even a relevant question any more, in 2014? Who determines what is good and not good? Or beautiful, or resonant, or sublime, or, conversely, bad, horrible, not worth expending even an epithet on? Are these characterizations a matter of a work of art's holistic aesthetics? Sociopolitical relevance? Technical virtuosity and mastery? Does the fact that a particular institution or an institutional field assigns such values make them valid? Does it matter that their decisions may be based not only on personal views drawn from expertise in the history of and criticism about art, but other institutional values, broader historically, politically, economically, and socially discourses about art, and contemporary market values? How much should any viewer know or factor in that there are immense financial stakes for collectors and connoisseurs?Is that what we mean today by the sensus communis? Does such a term have any meaning at all in the wake of the multiple stratifications and atomizations of the society in which we live? Does the sensus communis perhaps primarily and most aptly apply today to the artistry of Beyoncé Knowles, say, or Seinfeld during its heyday, or the current HBO hit Orange Is The New Black, rather than anything produced by some of the artists who now occupy the upper reaches of the contemporary US and global artworlds?  How important are these issues in thinking about art, about beauty, about aesthetic value?

What is it "good" art for? What makes it worth viewing? Is there any correlation between its aesthetic value and its market value? What do we even mean by "aesthetic value" today? Or use value for that matter? Do any of the additional aesthetic qualities proposed by critics like Sianne Ngai in books like Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (Harvard University Press, 2012), such as "zaniness" or "cuteness" or "interestingness" factor in at all in terms of this idea of "goodness" and its purpose? Does purposiveness? Does placing a work of art or multiple ones, by the same artist or different ones, within a given context like a gallery or museum, especially one of the major ones in the world, (not) legitimate an artwork and its author? Does it validate them and her? Are legitimation and validation the same thing? Can market value, which is now the primary value in contemporary art, be the only significant value an artwork possesses? What is or are relations between the acceptance of aesthetic and personal commodification and works of art's non-financial values? What do we say about artists who view themselves and their artwork not simply as commodities, which could be said to every degree about every artist creating today who is conscious of the world in which she lives, but as financial instruments? Can such artists ever again be said to approach their art with disinterest, and thus isn't that a category which might be jettisoned today? Which is to say beyond a basic barter system, can a painting or a sculpture also be considered as form of currency, or a derivative? What happens when we speak of works of art as derivatives or financial instruments? What does one call exchange value that is now so inflected? Is there a new name for this contemporary state of aesthetics, and would be be an(ti)aesthetics, commodesthetics, financesthetics, or something else?

Does such value (do such values or non-values) invalidate at a basic level the question of aesthetic, political, social or any other form of "goodness," "beauty," and so on? What is the relationship between this way of thinking, and Duchamp's readymades? Should we assign the the start of this thinking at the doorstep of Duchamp--or perhaps in more recent decades, Andy Warhol--or go back to Plato's ideas about second and third orders of artmaking, or Kant's formalism, as well as the aesthetic writings of Karl Marx? Does it unfairly raise the significance of a work of art and its author that I or anyone invokes such names? Is there a danger in doing so, and how does this relate to legitimation and validation? Does doing so also help to increase the "values" of certain works of art, even if I think they do not deserve it? Does it matter that an artist may or may not be aware of such questions? Or that, even if aware, she neither understands them or even cares?

Can't an artist focused primarily on making money make good art? Why does Jeff Koons make art other than to make money and make things? Does Jeff Koons know what "good" art is? Does Jeff Koons care? Should Jeff Koons care if a museum like the Whitney apparently does not? Does Jeff Koons' background as a Wall Street commodities broker as well as a graduate of an art school factor to a greater degree in the way in which his work appears often to be primarily a financial instrument or derivative? Isn't it fair to use the term "derivative" in relation to Jeff Koons's work, given that he was a broker, and, based on his show at the Whitney Museum, he, like many other artists, "derived" his early practice heavily from the work of Marcel Duchamp? Is it fair to say that Jeff Koons had a significant or noteworthy conceptual understanding of art, and of Duchamp's work, even at the start of his career? Has he had one since? Why does so much of Jeff Koons' work, its technical mastery excepted, look like something that might merit a harsh critique at an art school? Is technical mastery enough?

How do we speak of art that is at one level hard to look at and at another to turn away from, like Koons'? Does the monumentality of so much of Koons' work endow it with a significance it might lack if it were smaller in scale? Would we want to look at a golden balloon dog in cast metal if it were the size of one might find at a children's party rather than larger than a Cadillac Escalade? What about a heap of Play-Dough? What about a room or six or five floors of such work? Do such questions even matter? Would Jeff Koons have the career he has if he were not an educated white man from a middle-class middle-American background? Would such artwork be possible for someone not from such a background? What does this say about the roles of power, privilege and possibility in the contemporary art world, or in our society in general? Does it matter that in asking these questions so far I have not even broached questions of labor, production, and who in fact produces this art that has garned Jeff Koons such incredible fame and wealth?

Has the shift to a digital world of images, a world not of artworks but of platforms, as David Joselit has noted in his book After Art (Princeton, 2012), rendered Jeff Koons's work, especially his pornographic images with his ex-wife*, Ilona Staller, La Cicciolina, say, more or less valid? Are there words in the English language to capture my unpleasant physical response to see Jeff Koons naked and simulating or having sex? Is it not, however, a virtue, that works of art can make a viewer like me laugh out loud repeatedly, though not with the artwork's intended meanings, but in spite of and against them? Can an artwork, even in the age of mechanical and now digital reproducibility and infinite expansion and transformation, be said, when viewed either in person or online, to have no aura, and why does this seem to hold for so many (most?) of Jeff Koons' works?

Conversely, does not the possibility of infinite digital reproducibility render certain Koons' works even more auratic? Isn't it perhaps better, to put it another way, to see them on the Internet or some other digital space, as opposed to up close? Isn't there an aura of ratchetness (wretchedness) in contemporary American life to which more than a few aspire? Isn't this a negative aesthetics but a very different one from what Theodor Adorno proposed? Isn't this ratchet auratics a poetics that suffuses so much current popular culture and American culture more broadly? In identifying it am I not also implicating myself in my enjoyment in certain forms (such as reality shows, say) and examples ( of it? What happens when one places Real Housewives of New Jersey alongside Jeff Koons? Hasn't someone already done this? Why did the Whitney choose Jeff Koons' as its final show in its Marcel Breuer space, and what does this say about the Whitney Museum and its role and place in contemporary American and global art? Can any fields but cultural criticism and the history of art account for such an occurrence? Is Jeff Koons not the perfect artist for contemporary America, and if the answer is affirmative, doesn't this answer all the preceding questions?

* Many thanks to Andrew Blackley for correcting this error; Ilona Staller was Jeff Koons' wife, not just his girlfriend, which raises a number of related issues that Andrew also pointed out, such as: 

The degree and orientation of both of their agencies shifts within their marriage - regardless of personal respect(s) or equality of sorts or means individually in that there is a more or less an ideological "fair use" clause to the body of the other, and the inability (or difficulty) of protesting against or working counter to the other or the union as a whole ( say, in court.)

Is she the porn star girlfriend (working, or knowing how to work with and through her body) or is she the wife "at work," under an established consent between the two of them as people or "at work" under and as part of an institutional allowance?

And, if the above: what does that say about Jeff Koons and the rest of his "collaborations" with any number of cultur