Good Intentions Don’t Always Lead to Good Responses

In March, 2015, Kenneth Goldsmith is still reciting his conceptual, uncreative poetry of rearranging pre-existing documents, but this time decides to rearrange Michael Brown’s autopsy report and title it “The Body of Michael Brown.” The reading during the conference Interrupt 3 at Brown University received few responses from the audience as most remained quiet after the thirty minute long reading. While the responses at the event were more polite, social media exploded at the thought of Goldsmith, a privileged white man, reading the autopsy report of a death that caused heartache across the nation. From an artist’s standpoint, one could say Goldsmith had not done anything particularly wrong. He followed his signature restructuring of pre-existing documents, and this time pushed himself even further by choosing a much more controversial document. In art, it is important to change and push boundaries to grow as an artist, so, in this case, Goldsmith is simply experimenting and challenging himself. However, the artist’s views on his or her own art is just one of many components in the overall result of the artwork. Given that Goldsmith is a white, privileged male, one can easily see the controversy that arose from his poem. When delivering a poem, the words are not the only component that carries the performance, but it is also appearance, tone, body language, gestures, and so many other components. Goldsmith seemed to be lacking in many of these components which also fueled such uproar about his poem. In Rin Johnson’s response on, Johnson shares his account of the performance, and points out every aspect that made Goldsmith’s performance so wrong and uncomfortable. Since Johnson was an actual attendee at this event, Johnson is able to describe the various components where Goldsmith is lacking besides just content. His first comment is that “something is off about Goldsmith’s tone. I start to pick up a giddy somberness, the way some people giggle when they deliver bad news, like they aren’t sure what else to do.” I believe that Goldsmith, while he may have tried to be serious and express sorrow, is not able to convey the heavy emotions because he is unable to deeply understand the grief in Michael Brown’s unjust death. He did not know Brown personally nor is he able to understand the heavier meaning of Michael Brown’s death within the black community. This is just one instance where Goldsmith’s race is a shortcoming in trying to deliver “The Body of Michael Brown.” Furthermore, the way Goldsmith rearranged the autopsy report, specifically the final line, raises issues. Of all the lines in the autopsy report, Goldsmith chooses to close his poem with, “All surrounding genitalia is unremarkable.” When I read that this was how the poem ended, I could only feel that he was insensitive to this topic, as if he were attempting to make a joke of the report. In Johnson’s account, he described the final lines of the poem as sexual. Sexualizing someone’s autopsy report feels so wrong, and I do not understand how choosing to end on this note would express the injustices of his death. Moreover, while he may have wanted to force the audience to confront the horrors that happened to Michael Brown, he also succeeded in dehumanizing Brown. According to Johnson’s account, many had made comments referring to Brown as “it” or “the body,” not Michael Brown, someone unjustly and brutally killed. Choosing to recite Brown’s autopsy report leaves a sense of indifference. He is simply reading a report that has already been posted and available for everyone to read online. There was no compassion in Goldsmith’s readings or most of the comments from the audience as they continued to refer to Brown as an inanimate object. How can this sort of atmosphere elicit awareness of the harsh violence wrought upon black people? With all that was lacking in Goldsmith’s reading, the fact that Goldsmith is an educated, white male worsened every aspect of his performance. I think we, the white community, need to realize that not every subject is open to speak on with our opinion. As passionate as we may feel about certain topics, we will never be able to fully understand something that we do not go through or experience personally, and this understanding is needed when conveying awareness onto others. Yes, Goldsmith may have raised awareness about Brown’s tragedy, but I think he raised awareness in all the wrong ways. While art should be open to all topics, the platform in which it is presented needs to be considered. If the audience reaction matters a lot to the artist, than he or she needs to heavily consider not just how he or she feels about a topic but also how the general public would react. When considering this reaction, I think the artist is much more restricted in what he or she can create. Goldsmith should have put more thought in what he wanted to convey with this piece and realized that this topic is a bit out of reach for him to speak on it. If Goldsmith wanted the audience to confront the harsh realities of racism and the violence that comes with it, I think he should have chosen a more effective document than Brown’s autopsy report. Source:

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