What Happened When A White Male Poet Read Michael Brown's Autopsy As Poetry

03/17/2015 09:07 am ET | Updated Mar 20, 2015

On March 13, poet Kenneth Goldsmith took the stage at a conference titled Interrupt 3 at Brown University and read a poem titled "The Body of Michael Brown." The piece was a slightly altered version of Brown's official autopsy report, rehashing the medical details surrounding the teenager's death after he was killed by police last year in Ferguson, Missouri.

The remixed version ended with: "The remaining male genitalia system is unremarkable."

The piece lasted roughly 30 minutes, according to Hyperallergic, and the audience's reaction was "fairly subdued." After Goldsmith's reading, panelists and audience members were reportedly caught "off their guard," and the conference ended early.

Word of Goldsmith's performance soon swept the internet, and not surprisingly, many were outraged.

Goldsmith, the first poet laureate appointed by the Museum of Modern Art, describes his poetic practice as "mimetic and uncreative," his conceptual practice often consisting of altering and appropriating existing texts and positing them as literature. His previous book Seven American Deaths and Disasters adapted publicly available documents from national tragedies such as John F. Kennedy's assassination and the Columbine shooting. Think Andy Warhol's deadpan humor and obsession with the banality of morbidity.

The New York Times' Dwight Garner lauded the project while acknowledging its potential dangers, concluding: "

To Mr. Goldsmith’s detractors this may seem like a cheap stunt, a snort of disaster porn. Or it may seem like proof that, in the author’s case, even a blind and snoutless pig will occasionally find a truffle. At times it made me uneasy. But Mr. Goldsmith has also delivered a kind of found treasure of the American vernacular... This book is about language under duress."

Goldsmith responded to the influx of critiques lodged against him in a Facebook post, explaining the piece's association with his earlier work.

"In the tradition of my previous book Seven American Deaths and Disasters, I took a publicly available document from an American tragedy that was witnessed first-hand (in this case by the doctor performing the autopsy) and simply read it... This, in fact, could have been the eighth American death and disaster. The document I read from is powerful. My reading of it was powerful. How could it be otherwise? Such is my long-standing practice of conceptual writing: like Seven American Deaths and Disasters, the document speaks for itself in ways that an interpretation cannot. It is a horrific American document, but then again it was a horrific American death..."

Although Goldsmith's goal was ostensibly to pay tribute to Brown's tragic death, many were still incensed by a black man's life being used as content for a white man's conceptual art project. As P.E. Garcia wrote in an essay entitled The Body of Kenneth Goldsmith, "Kenneth Goldsmith is a white man, with a white male body, and he read about a dead, black body. This caused some people to become enraged.

"Kenneth Goldsmith doesn’t need my permission or anyone’s permission to do whatever it is he wants to do. A white man can read a black person’s autopsy and call it a poem. The white man can say he has been doing this for decades, that he has authored several books on the subject, and that he has black friends who will support him and back him up on this. That’s fine. The white man can go to sleep at night knowing that he’s made art and stuck by his principles

...Simply put, for Kenneth Goldsmith to stand on stage, and not be aware that his body–his white male body, a body that is a symbol loaded with a history of oppression, of literal dominance and ownership of black bodies–is a part of the performance, then he has failed to notice something drastically important about the 'contextualization' of this work."

The Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo, an organization targeting white supremacy and colonization, spoke out against the belief that such a text should ever be adapted into poetry: "The Murdered Body of Mike Brown’s Medical Report is not our poetry, it’s the building blocks of white supremacy, a miscreant DNA infecting everyone in the world. We refuse to let it be made 'literary'... Goldsmith cannot differentiate between White Supremacy and Poetry. In fact, for so many the two are one and the same."

Poet Jacqueline Valencia, a friend and mentee of Goldsmith's, compiled her thoughts in a blog post titled "Thoughts on Kenneth Goldsmith and Michael Brown." She concluded, in part: "Black suffering isn’t free and readily available to the public. Until the struggle is fought by those who suffer, we as people on the outside of it, must be allies and not silence black voices or speak over them."

Needless to say, Goldsmith's piece was provocative. Many of his decisions, from the use of the source material itself, to ending the poem discussing Brown's genitalia, viscerally hurt and disgusted a wide range of individuals. Although we can only assume Goldsmith anticipated the piece would be contentious, it seems he was not expecting the intensely pained reaction his work received.

According to Hyperallergic, Goldsmith requested that his reading not be made public by Brown University, explaining "there’s been too much pain for many people around this and I do not wish to cause any more."

When is appropriation unacceptable? When does human suffering supersede the freedom of artistic expression? Let us know your thoughts on the complex questions surrounding this incident in the comments. Read blogger Illya Szilak's response to the controversy here.

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