Art Meets Politics

For the artist, these tense political times offer other perplexing questions: Do I stifle my creative voice to be politically correct? Can I provoke and titillate my audience without alienating them? Will I, like poet Amiri Baraka, be publicly chastised for my views?

As Americans prepare to head to the polls Nov. 5, an awareness of our rights and responsibilities as citizens becomes heightened. A certain pride and patriotism comes with getting that little "I voted" sticker from the smiling (or not-so-smiling, depending on the time of day) volunteer at your local precinct.

Bigger issues, though, have shaded the color of patriotism for many of us. The very real possibility of war looms. And in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 tragedies, we are more conscious of the impact of our words and actions—publicly and privately. Jokes about bombs or plane crashes raise eyebrows not only for their general crudeness, but also for their insensitivity and political incorrectness. Questions about rights and freedom are floating across the airwaves: Is it wrong to use racial profiling to identify possible terrorists? Are the current security measures at airports and other public places invasive? Is the Patriot Act, in fact, unAmerican?

For the artist, these tense political times offer other perplexing questions: Do I stifle my creative voice to be politically correct? Can I provoke and titillate my audience without alienating them? Will I, like poet Amiri Baraka, be publicly chastised for my views?

Appointed in July 2002 by New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey, Baraka is the poet laureate for that state. A longtime political activist, a Beat poet (then known as LeRoi Jones) and a black nationalist, Baraka has used his art—whether poetry, plays or essays—to address political issues. He has been an advocate of separatism, self-determination and economic self-development for African Americans and was drawn to Marxism-Leninism in the 1970s. This is not a man one expects to sit quietly writing about the Delaware River (like his poetic predecessor Gerald Stern). Anyone who has followed his creative and political career knows that Baraka, now 68, has long advanced strong opinions that rankle the mainstream.

Recent controversy over Baraka's poem, "Somebody Blew Up America," makes that point strikingly clear. The poem, written as a memorial to Sept. 11, was in circulation months before Baraka's appointment as poet laureate. Baraka read the poem at public events across Europe and the U.S. in October 2001.

After Baraka read the poem at a Sept. 2002 festival, the Anti-Defamation League, along with Gov. McGreevey, called for an apology from Baraka and for his resignation as poet laureate. They claim the poem is anti-Semitic and perpetuates the "big lie" that Israel knew about the terrorist attacks before they occurred. McGreevey told The Associated Press in mid-October that "Baraka's poem sets forth falsehoods as fact." These are the controversial lines: "Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed/Who told 4,000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers/To stay home that day/Why did Sharon stay away?" Through rhetorical questions, and using a metaphorical owl asking "who? who? who?," the poem also probes for answers to a century's worth of crimes against humanity. Baraka also ridicules Clarence Thomas, Colin Powell, Condoleeza Rice and George W. Bush, but the lines about Israel are the ones causing him trouble.

However, the two-year tenure and $10,000 stipend awarded the poet laureate cannot be rescinded under current rules. Baraka must resign unless the governor can convince the state Legislature to give the New Jersey Council for the Humanities the power to fire him. And Baraka refuses to resign. He says his work is intended to "probe and disturb." It has certainly disturbed some folks, but the controversy has also reaped something else: more people are reading poetry, Baraka's anyway. That should be considered a success; after all, one job of the poet laureate is to encourage and promote the reading and sharing of poetry.

Sure, as poet laureate, Baraka is a spokesman for the state of New Jersey. However, should he suppress the very creative style that was instrumental in his appointment in the first place? Baraka did not forfeit his rights to free speech upon accepting his post. Whether you agree or disagree with Baraka's political position or opinions, or believe his poems are fact or fiction, artists everywhere should wonder where creative expression ends and government regulation and censorship begins—especially in a scared world where it is becoming routine to sacrifice individual freedoms for "security."

Art often makes people uncomfortable. It can showcase alternative and unpopular ideas. Through creativity and diversity of thought, art reshapes and sometimes even warps the truth in order to shock the senses and provoke thought. Our elected officials must be tuned into the impact and value of those emotions. They must support the needs and protect the rights of every citizen, including those in the creative class. It is our responsibility as voters to investigate the candidates, research the issues, and discover who will support and protect our freedom to create. We've got to do our homework this year and beyond to ensure that artists and other citizens retain our power to "probe and disturb." Otherwise, it may be politics as usual.

Jennifer Spann is a writer living and working in Jackson. She is happily married and delightfully childfree.

Editor's note: The American Civil Liberties Union keeps a scorecard of how elected officials vote on civil-liberty legislation.


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