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This item is taken from PN Review 112, Volume 23 Number 2, November - December 1996.


My friend Judith Vidal-Hall at Index on Censorship, has just forwarded me your comments made in an editorial for PN Review about my article 'Megaphones for the Dispossessed'. I wouldn't like you to think that I felt what you had to say was other than extremely kind and generous -but I did also feel you were wrong on a lot of points, partly because I to some extent suppressed information - out of prudence, I may add.

To take what you said in the order in which you yourself put it:

1. It is true that those who oversee texts for the vast American educational market are anxious that no one group should now feel itself culturally superior. But they are also profoundly nationalist, and reluctant to see beyond the boundaries of the United States. The text I was alluding to has yet to be published, it is a book called Visual Arts in the 20th Century, and it will appear in October, from Laurence King here, and from Abrams and Prentice-Hall in the United States - that is, from the most prestigious publisher of art books and the most powerful educational publisher in the USA. After a series of fierce struggles with meddlers of various sorts, it will appear pretty much as I originally wrote it (otherwise, as I had to say at one point, I would have exercised the 'moral right' clause in the contract and refused to allow it to be published at all).

2. The book, even as originally presented, was far more multi-cultural, as well as much richer in women artists, than any equivalent text covering the same area. In particular, it follows the direction indicated by my big survey book Art Today, published by Phaidon in October 1995, by giving a lot of space in the final chapters - it is arranged by decades - to contemporary art outside the boundaries of Europe and the United States: in Latin America (the importance of Latin American modernism is in fact a theme throughout), in the Far East (China, Japan, Korea), in Africa, in Australia (the new Aboriginal art) and in New Zealand (modern Maori art). What upset the American publishers was, in part at least, the absence of a group of 'easy to teach' African-American and American feminist polemicists. Some of these were truly bad artists, and I would have thought very poor role models. Have you ever encountered the work of one Sue Williams, whose message is that all men are rapists or potential rapists, and who makes graffiti paintings which are poor imitations of Jean-Michel Basquiat? Well, this was the kind of thing I was commanded, rather than merely requested, to put in.

3. At the same time one of the 'outside readers' employed by Abrams put in a demand that I make it clear that the opinions put forward in the book were personal to myself. I met this by making a declaration to that effect in the very first sentence of my Introduction. Effectively, what the American publishers wanted was that I should say what they thought, but declare on oath that it was what I thought. Clearly this won't do, even in a major educational text where there is a great deal financially at risk.

4. You deny the 'monolithic' nature of the American educational system. What you ought to consider is the monolithic nature of American educational publishing. Prentice-Hall (who allow themselves to be guided by Abrams where texts on art are concerned) are, as I have just said, the most powerful educational publisher in the United States. They, and a small number of other imprints, absolutely dominate the market. The main competition for my book is the revised history of twentieth century art by H.H. Arneson, published by - who else? - Abrams. This is (a) disjointed because of the several revisions it has been put through since it was first published in the 1970s; (b) much more 'Eurocentric' than my text, even in revised form; (c) twice as long, and very boringly written - I have always been unable to finish it. Despite Arneson's established position in the market, my book has an excellent chance of displacing his as the standard text on its subject. In other words, taught well, taught badly, it doesn't really matter - this is likely to be the absolute bedrock of information open to many - maybe in time most - students in American universities who choose to study twentieth century art.

5. With so much at stake, it's no wonder the American publishers are nervous, and anxious to placate all possible constituencies. Unfortunately this leads them to try to distort history itself. Effectively the feminist lobby in American education is much stronger than any lobby based on race - largely because feminists tend to be well-educated and middle-class, and thus suffer much less 'dispossession' in a purely economic sense. Obviously, it's a good idea to offer women students role models. However, is it also a good idea to try and conceal from them the fact that the early phase of Modernism, thanks largely to Nietzsche, was quite strongly misogynistic? I quoted, apropos of this, one of the more blatantly misogynistic passages from the early Futurist manifestos. The American publishers were horrified - they asked me would I please leave it out, as it might put readers off? And in fact I did cut it - knowing the kind of people I was dealing with I had always intended the citation as a potential sacrifice, and I thought being confronted with it would make them think twice about trying to tinker with things I considered more important.

6. If you want some idea of the way the 'inconvenient' is suppressed in American textbooks, you should look up the very funny, but also very sobering, essay by Carl Morse which appeared in the issue of Index immediately previous to the one that carried my essay.

7. Where recent art is concerned, American editors have little sense of proportion. In a book of the sort I was writing, space for any given topic is always very limited - it's a series of Lord's Prayers written on the heads of a series of pins. If I had followed all the suggestions made to me, or to put it another way, acceded to all demands, the final three chapters - 1970s, 1980s, 1990s - would have consisted of about 80% of women artists (nearly all of them American) and African Americans. It took a certain amount of shouting to bring it home that this would be ludicrous. Even now the most discussed art stars - Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, for example -have the habit of being white and male. (Interestingly enough, my American editors were often rather ignorant about women artists who worked during the first fifty years of the century - Paula Modersohn-Becker, for example.)

8. You speak of me as an 'informed and liberally European' critic. Thank you - but it's not quite true. 'Informed', perhaps, but not very European. I live in London, but I was born in the West Indies, of a West Indian family. I remain in touch with the Afro-Caribbean community here, and my early poems continue to appear as 'West Indian poetry' in the school anthologies used in the English-speaking Caribbean. I travel more than any art critic I know, mostly out of Europe. Since 1985 I have seen most of Latin America, nearly all of New Zealand and a bit of Korea. In addition I've made several trips to Turkey, where I know a number of leading artists. I also know Australia and South Africa at first hand. I spend about two months every year in the States, but broken up into short visits. I am, for example, just planning my third visit to New Orleans this year - I curated a show for the museum there and am now involved with a show of Louisiana art (including a number of African Americans) which will be seen in London in November. I go regularly to California and New Mexico - more often nowadays than to New York. I reckon I know much more about the 'out of New York' art scene in the United States than any American critic - the only major art centre I have never visited is Seattle. It's not merely a narrow nationalism I dislike about American editors - it's also the ingrained attitude they have that nothing worth talking or thinking about happens anywhere but in New York.

Finally, a word about 'standards'. You seem to take what amounts to a very relativist position - what counts about the work of art is who makes it and how it is used. I have a certain sympathy with this. I often think I am the most thoroughly relativist writer on contemporary art now on the scene - or, rather, the most honestly relativist one. I think a work of art only has meaning when you place it in its cultural context, and that this is as true of Michelangelo's David as it is of a Chicano mural in East Los Angeles. Sarah Kent of Time Out, who seems to me to judge works of art almost entirely by the way they fit with her own social and political conceptions, once said to me that she couldn't live with herself unless she believed in 'absolute standards'. I believe in absolute standards in about the same way that I believe that God is alive and well in Mexico City. On the other hand, I don't think that relativism is a prescription for telling people what they want to hear, which is what you come very close to recommending. Feeding an African American student doses of simplified propaganda about the virtues of 'Africanism' and the wickedness of white society (which is the message of some African American art, though certainly not all) isn't going to help that student cope either with the real world or with the idea of art itself. I think one thing one learns from studying modern African art - made in Africa itself - is the great distance it has from the African American product. And it's always interesting, sobering and deeply instructive to talk to real Africans, intellectuals admittedly, about their view of African American and indeed Afro-Caribbean culture. There are some things I wouldn't dare to put into a textbook for the American market, even as an act of provocation!


Pound's Agenda

I am sorry if William Cookson takes my sarcasm about 'refined minds' so personally that he is driven to pretend that he does not possess one. Come along: surely the editor of a fancy critical magazine has some acquaintance with English usage. 'Refined' is rendered in the shorter OED as, among other definitions, 'Free from rude, gross, or vulgar elements… Of language, speech, etc: Cultivated, polished, elegant. Raised to a high degree of subtlety, nicety, precision, etc.' For Cookson to add a bracket '(whatever that phrase means?!)' hardly primes an impression of considered response: his question mark following 'whatever' - which does not imply a question - is unpromising, while the Angela Brazilian exclamation mark solicits connivance that has yet to be earned. If the phrase 'refined minds' is not exactly innovative, it is at least grammatical, which can hardly be alleged of the expression 'Those inevitably dwindling number of people', with which Cookson begins the next paragraph of his polemic.

However, the question of English usage is not important here, although Cookson first raised it. Let me begin with a concession, in case that helps to reduce the inflammation: it may well be that I was wrong to speak of'centrality' with regard to Pound's anti-Semitism. Part of the problem of the Cantos, as even their admirers usually concede (or boast), is that they contain brilliant contributions to a whole which, like Los Angeles, sprawls impressively but does not quite come together. Hence, perhaps, as one might expect from a constructively eclectic mind (is that word OK with Cookson?), there may well be no centre to speak of. There was, however, a cluster of energising ideas, so to say, at the heart of Pound's vigorous urgency (all right so far, Ed.?) and one of them was a conceptualnotion of'the Jews' as standing for a diabolical force to which, on covert occasions, Pound gave the name 'usury'. This money-grubbing vision of 'the Jews' was an integral (central?) part of the usage of Christian Europe long before Pound tapped into it and he cannot, of course, be blamed personally for it, though he did elect to employ and amplify it. One of the tricks of some anti-Semites - who are not of a common temper or purpose - is to denounce 'the Jews' (a cohesive oligarchy of meta-political-plotters), while exempting the 'innocent' Solomon Nobody who pays the price for the Sanhedrin's manipulations by having his little Ikey beaten up at school. Even Charles Maurras, Eliot's mentor, exempted the ghettoed schnook, who did not pretend to be anything but a 'pauvre petit Jui!, from his murderous recipes. The duplicitous use of terms is, of course, one of the glories of poetry and his admirers should not lightly acquit Pound of practising it; 'contradictory' attitudes towards scapegoats are, as René Girard has so often pointed out, typical of those with social 'solutions' involving human sacrifice and its subsequent self-exculpatory 'denial'. Oedipus' ejection and belated 'sainthood' illustrate how the victim, through having been the 'mysterious' source of a cure for social discord, can later have his 'powers' become the subject of a kind of awe (the word 'sacred' is itself two-faced, like the adjective 'dire' or deinos. 'The Jew', in the notation of world-conspiracy theorists, is never this or that mundane Jewboy; he is something infinitely more elusive and can be eliminated only by the 'regretted' destruction of all Jews, including the 'innocent'. Do we really have to go through all this every time someone reveals himself to know as little as Cookson about the deviousness of power and of fantasists who ape it?

Cookson is either disingenuous or naïve if he supposes that my alleged failing to 'take into account passages in Pound's writing… where he attacked anti-Semitism' is evidence of 'unscrupulous-ness' (watch your mouth, Billy, by the way). Even the quotation he offers is more ambiguous than it suits his purpose to notice. To adduce an instance when Pound denounced 'race prejudice' does not argue against the poet's diabolisation of 'the Jews'; it might as well indicate that, as one would expect of a master of masquerade, he wants 'us' to find fault with 'them' on other, supposedly truer (hence unprejudiced) grounds. I do not think I am being tendentious here, but I can't be sure. So let's try this: 'Ezra Pound was not an anti-Semite'. How do you like it so far, Cookson? In total agreement? Let's add: 'Anything he said against "the Jews" was more than balanced by something he said against people who were racially prejudiced against them.' Still happy? Still in proportion? Let's add: 'The fact that he broadcast eagerly in support of Italian fascism and also endorsed, in public, on the air, at the height of the Holocaust, the German 'action' against the Jews, is something he more than made up for, after the war had been lost by the side he favoured, by not being personally nasty to individual Jews and by writing poems, such as "Pull down thy vanity" which could be read (by refined minds) as an apology, although others, including Pound himself by some accounts, read it as a sly, surly warning to the conquerors not to overdo it.' Whose sense of proportion are we talking about now? OK, let us be fair and add that, like Mr Eliot, Pound has no record of calling anyone a kike to his face or of seeking to have him (or her) taken out and shot. Sounds like a real pal to me. How could anyone accuse someone of being anti-Semitic just because he actively and voluntarily supported Fascism, winked at Nazism, wrote marginally joshing anti-Semitic squibs - happy, Cookson? - and associated international banking virtually exclusively with 'the Jews' or, prettier still, 'the jew'? In addition - as if he needed any further endorsement! - ole Ez was personally kind to a little English schoolboy called Cookson and warned him (in 1957-8) against anti-Semitism. That just about clears him of all charges - wouldn't you agree, ladies and gentlemen of the jewry? - and may even lead some of us, with unrefined minds, to dry the starting tear.

Cookson does a bit of very touching personal reminiscence, thus incidentally boosting his already poetic reputation, by telling us that he corresponded with ole Ez while a mere schoolboy. Even as an adult, he seems to imagine that what a man whose cause has been defeated, and whose ideas and fame have been consequently tarnished with ignominy (if only because American manufacturing capacity, under Mr Roseyvelt, exceeded that of the Axis), writes to an adolescent admirer can serve as a decisive refutation of what Pound shouted aloud when Fascism seemed to be the coming thing. Cookson's sense of proportion is untainted by any sense of chronology and by very little sense of shame. He does not mention that the aged Pound told Allen Ginsberg, aprés coup of course, that his 'mistake' was to have had anything to do with the 'suburban prejudice' of anti-Semitism. This was a neat way of deploring the sentiment as lacking in prestigious chic; it also made the silly suburbs somehow responsible for his own lack of balance, wit and decency. If he was not now crudely hostile to the jews ('kikes' is not usually a term of endearment), Pound finally found a scapegoat, which no one would choose to defend, in the sort of people who live in houses called Dunroamin and play golf at segregated clubs.

If having a sense of proportion means that we must weigh Pound's public pronouncements during the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s against what he 'regretted' thereafter, Cookson and others are free to do so. Personally, I give less of a damn whether people like or are personally disagreeable to Jews than Cookson may suppose. It is disgracefully tempting to suggest that Pound's and Eliot's failure to be offensive to Jews' faces is proof less of their lack of prejudice than of their want of courage, but it hardly matters. It is not untypical of writers - not always nice people, like Cookson - to show several faces to the world; politeness too is a form of irony, isn't it? (Why do/did gentlemen get up when ladies come into the room? Because they think/thought of them as equals?)

How sweet it must be to believe that neither Eliot nor Pound had the smallest sympathy with anti-democratic, oligarchic régimes and that neither of them deserves the smallest reproach for anything he said! Catholics are equally determined that Pope Pius XII really did everything he possibly could to help the Jews (and the Serbs?) when they were being massacred. Defensive reactions of this kind show to what lengths people will go, in religion and in art, sozein ta phainomena: the inability to respond duly - whatever that might be - to scandals and catastrophes (let us call them) inclines people not to some kind of a response but, as Eliot did, to ignore what happened as entirely as possible. Dr Pangloss will always need more than the Lisbon earthquake to convince him that all is not for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

When Cookson says 'Neither Julius, nor Raphael in his comment, show (sic) any sense of proportion', he is presumably advising Dr Julius against the practice of literary criticism which, like the Biblical commentaries which initiated it, is concerned to detect and elucidate nuance, paradox, duplicity and all those tactical devices by which, as Heraclitus might have said, a writer (especially an oracular poet) both does and does not declare his meaning. What Cookson, and others, fail to see, or to want to see, is that there is a tell-tale, prosaic chronology to Pound's affectations of denial (never of regret, except for what anti-Semitism did to him). The truth is so simple that it is unsurprising that Cookson and others have a problem with it: Pound was an opportunist with a golden, or at least silver, tongue and his vanity impelled him to propound world-political 'solutions' which he both did and did not want to be taken seriously, like a child who says 'I hate you' and then wonders why you are upset and don't particularly want to play ball.

There is a good deal of comedy in the literary establishment's determination to find Pound and Eliot innocent of anything except a few intemperate metaphors and being nice to Louis Zukovsky (one day someone will explain to me, shortly, why his wilful murder of Catullus is a work of genius). Whatever my own intemperance, Julius' book is an admirably controlled, very English, study of certain Eliotesque tropes and, had its choice of topic been as bland as most doctoral theses, it would have taken its easy place on the usual dusty shelves. However, since it dares to take Eliot more seriously than his usual admirers, of which Julius clearly remains one, its author can be accused of overdoing it by self-important people who write as ungram~atically as the editor of Agenda. Like that of being 'emotional', the charge of disproportion has undertones - love 'em, don't you? - of being typically disposed to go with undue haste to the wailing wall; but let it pass, let it pass.

I am reminded of a long row which Tom Wiseman once had with an actor who had been in the Hitler youth. The actor, quite understandably, asked to be excused for his recruitment and explained that, for a young boy, the cause of Germany and that of Hitler seemed one and the same. Wiseman (whose father was murdered by the Nazis in Vienna) had more or less conceded the point, when the actor's (then) wife said, 'Mr Viseman, vy don't ve simply agree zat as far as ze Germans and ze Jews vere concerned, zere vere mistakes on bose sides?'

Belvés, France

This item is taken from PN Review 112, Volume 23 Number 2, November - December 1996.

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