X Marks the Parataxis: Louis Armand, John Kinsella and Jessica L Wilkinson

By | 1 May 2014

Politics, then, is temporal (it is liable to become dated), whereas poetry is eternal. Although I admit that some poets endure while others are forgotten, the basic premise of what I say remains true. (Some poets are ‘rediscovered’.) It is to be hoped by everyone that art outlives the politics of the moment, which it always does. In a previous essay on Kinsella’s Divine Comedy, I mentioned that the subject of one of his ‘cantos’, Tony Abbott, then the Health Minister in Australia’s Howard government, was at the time of writing the Opposition Leader. Now he is Prime Minister. Other politicians have moved benches or from one House to the other, changed portfolios, have left or retired, or have stood aside or been suspended, or face jail. Now that the cowboys are running the show again it is Republica Tit-for-Tat. (If only Australia were a republic instead of the federation of former colonies with a foreign head of state that we are!) Is it time for an exodus again? Ah, travel – exile – can be diverting as well as a diversion. Proust wrote that travel can be like the first outing of convalescents, who saw their change of scenery as a cure (Pierre Joris’s ‘nomad poetics’). Picasso once said that ‘artists are indestructible, even in a prison, or a concentration camp’.

You know that the artists who pulled out of the Sydney Biennale because its major sponsor was also running Australia’s overseas concentration camps for asylum seekers have done the right thing when a minister of the Australian government has labelled them ‘vicious’ ingrates. (Governments both left and right have called such camps ‘detention centres’ for asylum seekers – the present conservative government also euphemistically calls such detainees, ‘transferees’ and its policy, the militarised Operation Sovereign Borders – but if camps, such as the murderous one on Manus Island, in Papua New Guinea, were genuine, assessments of refugee status would have been made by now; instead, in more than fifteen months not one claim has been assessed there.) When the Biennale Board acceded to these artists’ demands and rejected such tainted sponsorship, the federal government then went on to instruct the Australia Council, a supposedly independent funding agency for the arts, not to fund any artist or organisation that did not support government policy, for we must remember, the Attorney-General reminds us, that the arts – especially opera and ballet, but he did not say this – form part of our economic ‘brand’. ‘Right’ and ‘wrong’ may change positions in non-fiction, like ‘left’ and ‘right’ in politics, but there is no right or wrong in poetry. (Robert Creeley, in the late 1960s, saw the division of right and wrong as less insistent; has the wheel of history turned half-circle? ‘[B]ut if / a poem isn’t a machine to make History who does the poet speak for?’ [A 69], asks Armand.)

Art as a part of a nation’s economics is Baudrillard’s slag heap – sacré nom de nom! Or science in art as the latest fad or fashion (‘tying art to scientific / ‘advancements’ ‘ [K 23]). The key to its success is manipulation. Creeley saw no reason to keep art and politics separate, so I imagine he welcomed a fusion of art and science, too. Nicholas Zurbrugg investigated this in his Parameters of Postmodernism. Nin was excited by it years ago; she hoped science and art would meld into one another one day and often quoted Einstein (did she make it up?) as saying that when he arrived at a discovery he found that poets had been there before him. Susan Sontag, ultimate critic of form and content who once publicly lectured Czesław Miłosz on the subject of politics in art, saw that one could be political, feminist and an artist, too, as separate parts of oneself or combined.

Advertising agencies use economic language as though art were a business, like fashion (Barthes’s Fashion System; ‘you collaborating wankers / who vox populi niche markets’ [K 10]). Kinsella would agree with Alexander Trocchi, who wrote almost sixty years ago: ‘The vulgarity of professionalism. The anthropological treason of those who treat ‘culture’ seriously’, who think in terms of educating the mass instead of teaching man [sic] how to play. The callow, learned jackanapes who trail round art exhibitions looking for they know not what in another’s bright turd. How soon Dada was mummified by its inclusion in the histories.’ For ‘culture’, read: ‘brand’. I like play, what I call ludicism, for it leads to a happy freedom. (In Nin’s words, a refusal to despair.) What would Trocchi – and many others like him – have made of the bureaucracies that are the Australia Council, America’s National Endowment for the Arts, The British Council, et al., that seem oblivious to any play that is not economically productive (‘funding dramas to appease / art-lust’ [K 20])? Kinsella shares my outrage at so-called neo-liberalism, privatisation and globalisation (at its simplest, where industrialists always go, exploitation of the cheapest, wherever that is in the world; that refugees are the other side of the coin might explain the militation against them by wealthy countries like Australia):

Milton Friedman just died. Old Man of Chicago School
economics. HIS economics. He never felt guilty,
I don’t think, never apologised. To my knowledge.

The Treasurer deploys violence
to thwart violence, saying of protestors
at the G20 summit: ‘they think they’re political
but they’re really criminal,’
and that’s why binary stars co-exist,
why mythologies are obsessed
with reflection/s (K 47; upper-case emphasis in original).

‘Mining companies rule Australia’ (K 26). In Australia (of all places!), forget climate change, itself a euphemism for global warming (another accessory to, if not a leftist conspiracy theory against, globalisation). Carbon emissions – no one in government will call them what they are: pollution. (‘[A] damaged landform staggering upright’ [A 28, in ‘Biodegradable’]; ‘killing, poisoning, clearing, bush-bashing, / spraying – another version of poisoning and killing’ [K 71; emphasis in original].) Armand, then, is urban (Abel); Kinsella, country (Cain; his Divine Comedy was subtitled ‘Journeys through a Regional Geography’); and Wilkinson is transnational if not transrational in marionette (‘CAIN AND MABEL’ [W 46]). – Plague, for example, is analogous or metaphorical for most of us (plague/Prague; ‘Plague / column, hunger wall, golem city’ [A 69]), or it is biblical (‘One of the ten plagues of Egypt’ [A 10]). Except for farmers (‘More feasting in a time of plagues’ [K 54]). But when it comes to heritage, most Australians are not interested, urban or country, unless they can see a profit in it. (Leaving all the demolition to one side – a kind of extinction – when Melbourne’s main museum was moved, the local underground station that served it was renamed after the shopping centre above it. I have to admit, however, that a lack of interest in heritage is the happy ‘downside’ to nationalism [‘flashing backyard suburban jingoism’ (A 11)]. Our ‘cultural cringe’ stems from our always believing that it was better elsewhere [‘History is what happens at other times’ (A 50)], though the emigrations of the like of Germaine Greer, James, Barry Humphries, et al. are happening less and less these days. Therefore, it is up to local artists and poets to debate ‘Historical Monuments’ [A 10; cf., W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz] and ‘[h]istory and fiction v[ying] for attention’ [W 53].)

Proust imagined poets taking pleasure in composing their poems, in discovering the next word (Barthes’s Pleasure of the Text):

The rogue’s gallery is affected by dieback.
We gush anaphora. Lest we forgive … lest we …
like a precinct of certainty: post office, courthouse,
police station. All called; collated: Federation
Arts and Craft style.
Proud as heritage. Character references. (K 105)

Ironically, Armand currently lives in a country that was cruelly repressed and where censorship ruled (with a brief Prague Spring, in 1968; Armand and Kinsella were alive then but it would have hardly registered on their young consciences.) Naturally, I do not believe in any sort of literary censorship (freedom of speech that amounts to hate speech is another matter; always look for intent), but it did or does not exist purely in totalitarian régimes, and so even in the ‘free world’ we have to be vigilant.

We only have to think of the sorry history of censorship in Australia, for books and movies and other types of artistic – and political – expression as well. Those days, unfortunately, are not entirely over (think of the recent Bill Henson affair, where intent was ignored), with official censorship (now known euphemistically as a refusal to classify) as well as self-censorship, especially when artists depend on government grants or subsidies for their livelihood. But, you cannot have it both ways: you cannot say on the one hand that art does not catalyse viewers to commit acts of violence, for instance, then on the other maintain that art can change the world. Angry poets like Ted Joans espouse a political poetry, but while I enjoy reading him, I do not believe in his ‘teducation’. Trocchi wrote in Cain’s Book that ‘[n]o book was ever responsible. (Sophocles didn’t fuck anyone’s mother.)’ Mimesis, from Plato to Bruno Roy’s recent translation of C. P. Cavafy’s L’Art ne ment-il pas toujours? (‘Doesn’t Art Lie All the Time?’), is just a form of mimicry (‘warbling vacuous ditties about birds’ [W 46]). James would have it that I am one of those ‘above’ politics, that the world is too much for delicate flowers like me who quaintly proclaim art for art’s sake, but that does not mean condonation or approval, and as I said to poet Corey Wakeling recently in an interview: ‘Perhaps the most famous painting to come out of the twentieth century was Picasso’s Guernica, resulting from the incendiary bombing of the Basque village of Gernika, in 1937, but I would argue his painting did not put an end to or contributed to ending fascism in Spain or elsewhere. That’s not to say I don’t find Guernica, now in New York, a masterpiece, nor do I underestimate how much of an indictment it was and is and what an influence it has been on modern art. Trouble is, others, especially politicians, use the ‘power of art’ for their own ends.’

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