Jemima and the Grits

Like most people, i am full of foibles (a word that, i found out by googling, means "the weakest part of the blade"). One of these foibles is to refer to someone else as "brilliant" when what i really mean is that "i agree with them." One person i find myself agreeing with almost constantly, and therefore consider brilliant, is the writer/farmer/bad poet Wendell Berry. Another one is a visual artist and writer named Gregory Sholette.

I wanted to throw Sholette in here because i find i'm currently at an emotional/intellectual impasse on this, the final installation of Jemima and the Grits. See, i've been sittin' here for...what? four days? writing a paper. That paper contains sentences like this:

Although I found only the most critically aware of these citizens seeing past my evident contradiction, Conscientização, nonetheless, enters into an active, simultaneous refutation and reinstatement of privilege. Similar to my struggles in balancing the twin objectives of memorialization/politicization, this second dialectic, too, laid bare the central contradiction found in almost all interventionist and activist work.

And that's alright, man. Those sentences say some stuff, but not really in the way i like to say them. Only problem is that i've gotten myself into that jargon-y head space, and i'm havin' a hard time gettin' out. I'm having a hard time finding the middle ground between academic crapspeak and saying things i feel inside. So, instead of having to search out this middle for what i want to say about art and specifically the plea i wish i could make to the art scene and artists in charleston, i want begin by referring you to a couple of websites:


(and then hit "english" and then "art". after that, you're free to surf.)
and then,


(For Sholette you're gonna have to click on the "writings" link.)

Those two sites pretty much sum up academically, and in a much better, clearer way, what i'm just not willing to go in to here.

Alright. Having done that, lemme get back to my old, comfortable habit of haphazardly connecting disparate stuff:

For the last couple of days, in order to clear up my head and give my brain a break from the last...oh, eight months...I've been re-reading my Sherlock Holmes books. See, look here: i'm an idiot. Here's what i mean: I love Sherlock Holmes. Now, there's nothing wrong with that in particular, but i'm a member of a silly club of people that study the stories. I've cross-referenced cases to actual events in the weather. I used to have an old London timetable for trains, just to make sure that Doyle wasn't playing fast and loose with the actual schedule (pronounced Shed-dule). So just where did that Jezail bullet pierce Watson? Was it in the shoulder or the leg? My copies of the stories have color-coded highlighting to designate "deductions," "humor," "Baker Street," etc. I wish i had a picture of Irene Adler (i'll bet she looks like Alison in a high, lacy collar).

Anyway, (ah...good old "anyway") the other night while i was reading these stories again, i was really aware of all the references to people not being of the same "station," of how so-and-so had an income of so many pounds a year, and i thought that's really the only thing America's had going for it all this time: the permeability of the "class" structure.

But, that's a fable that tells us we can be born a sharecropper and die the president. That fable may be truer here than it was in turn of the century England, but it ain't that much truer, is it? I mean, come on. I just read a "story" in the newspaper this morning about Jeb Bush's interest in the presidency. I know it's a puerile deduction, but if the any-boy-being-president fable were true, then it would be a near statistical impossibility for two members of the same family to end up as presidents, right? To paraphrase Holmes: when you've exhausted all other possibilites, what remains, no matter how ridiculous, must be the truth. That truth?

We live in a plutocracy.

Alright. Moving right along (although, i know with my blog posts that that's a relative term). Lemme bring up just a little bit of theory here for a second. Julia Kristeva is the mama of "the abject." The abject, very reductively, says that you can't know beauty without you know ugly.
Well, here's some abject for you: Jemima and the Grits. That's the name of the every-painting i discovered upon first moving to Charleston.

Jemima and the Grits is the high art equivalent to a Fort Lauderdale Airbrush Palm Tree License Plate with LeighAnne's Name scrawled across it.
It is a beach scene with an inexplicably orange east coast sunset featuring the silhouette of a fat black mammy in a headscarf uncle tommin' some steaming pot on a stove with a spoon.
It is some doufus, nigh on realistic, oil paint representation of the house you already live in, or a bunch of fresh flowers that already sit on your dining room table.

Come on folks: that ain't art! it's f/art if i've ever seen it. It ain't people coming together "from all walks of life to share a mutual joy in self-expression" as the faux story-- planted by a realtor for I'On-- claimed in this morning's paper about that community's neighborhood art group. (I'On, for non-Charlestonians, is a bleached out, jillion dollar, disneyland suburb nestled far from the place where dirty men can abduct your children and drug-crazed ethnic groups steal you plasma teevee. I'On is a place where you can stroll to the local coffee shop on groomed, non-cracked sidewalks and visit with your neighbor over the stacked stone wall that surrounds your gated community. All of this is yours, starting in the low 800's...)

Sorry. I've become more bitter than i thought i would...that's cheap resentment and fear speaking, and i'm sorry. (i'm still gonna leave it there, though)

here's the deal: i believe that real capital A Art started as an effort to communalize. To humanize and create a sense of place and history. Jemima does that, too, but it does it by way of de-humanizing a whole other group.

Someone, somewhere, long ago picked up the burnt end of a stick and expressed themselves on a stone wall. They defined, through the use of visual representation, the common struggle for survival they were all experiencing. They drew a picture to help their children recognize what root vegetable to pull out of the ground, or to memorialize Ugh's brave battle with the saber-toothed tiger and how he saved the village, and died in the process.

In my weaker moments i realize that they may have also drawn a picture of Blugh, from the other village, and explained how Blugh was mean and evil and violent and would take thier rooted vegetable if they didn't kill him first. I don't know, man. Maybe that's just the course of history.

What i do know, however, is that at least today, i have Plenty. I have so much that i could start giving away everything right now and still have some left over next week. And maybe that Plenty was actually provided by a long line of Blugh's within my own community, raping and pillaging the next community over. Again, i don't know.

But i don't think it's Plenty that makes me human. I think it's the choice to enact the kind of world i want that really makes me human. It's that choice that gives me the abililty to appreciate real beauty.

I want to have the willingness and courage to choose a better existence for all of us. I choose to agree with another brilliant thinker and believe that "the arc of history is long, but it bends toward freedom." I want my contribution to help bend it a little more.


Kenneth said...

One way to clean up academese -- and many sorts of writing -- is to turn nouns into verbs. This can help get rid of some clutter.

I edited the first sentence of your excerpt and changed seeing to saw, refutation to refutes, reinstatement to reinstates. I came up with this:

Although I found only the most critically aware of these citizens seeing past my evident contradiction, Conscientização, nonetheless, enters into an active, simultaneous refutation and reinstatement of privilege.

I turned this into:

Only the most critically aware citizens saw past my evident contradiction, but nonetheless Conscientização refutes and reinstates privilege, actively and simultaneously.

Is that better?

Walter said...

excellent editing, sir burns. your talents are being squandered in the food review bidness. only thing is, i don't think your version would have achieved that level of incomprehensibility so desired by my sole dissenting committee member.

(the other guys were cool with "privilege is fuckin' stuff up.")

Kenneth said...

Yes, sometimes in academics jargon is its own end. That's one of the main reasons I got out. I couldn't write any way but plainly.

Anonymous said...

Your description of I'On reminds me of the book I just read--The Tortilla Curtain--it parallels two very different lives, that of a man/family (liberal humanist environmentalist) who lives in a gated community in California and that of an illegal immigrant/wife who live illegally in a State Park in the same community. It's less about capital A art than capital A attitudes. Interesting book, if depressing.

I wholeheartedly agree with Kenneth about the unnessacery nominalizations of academiprose. And the pointlessness of it. Clarity is highly underrated.

Walter said...

kenneth and deandra:

i was re-reading your comments here and thought i would post the conclusion of that thesis paper for you:


I have spent my life on what I’ve come to determine is a teleological journey. Although unaware of it at the time, I entered graduate school with this journey in mind. I’ve discovered, at this point along the way, that I’m interested in undoing the systems of oppression and privilege of which I am an integral part. As such a person (and like many other interventionist practitioners), I have become disenchanted with, have no real interest in, and do not believe in the validity of a prescription for behavior, or the academic, formal presentation of dogmatic systems I believe only serve to further this privilege. These considerations haunted me from the beginning of this project to its end. They continue to haunt me now, here at the end of this writing.
My art, quite by accident, entered the delicate territory of activism. The presence of that activism conjures the specter of privilege even as I try to divest of it. My education itself, while helping me to better recognize the part I play within the systems I want to disrupt, is always already a part of this same system. This very thesis is rife with jargon and explications that only serve to undercut my own strategy for the alignment of process and theory.

It is difficult to reason one’s way out of this.

I know that this attempt at academic writing, here at the end of my graduate career, serves a valuable purpose. It is a shorthand method for comprehending large and complicated ideas, and I hope it ultimately serves a good purpose. But for me—to return to that idea of process and theory, the disruption of systems, and my own teleological journey—it is, perhaps, a suspect mode of expression. I have found that this kind of shorthand is a method for the laying out of rules. It is cold and analytical. It is, in short, an instruction book for a particular practice. It is not the practice itself.
Because of this, I have included an extended addendum of sorts. It is a much longer, more rambling and unclear piece of writing that attempts to take up emotionally where this paper leaves off analytically. It is personal and autobiographical. It is of little formal academic value, but for me, it represents a sort of alignment of process and theory—the actual practice of what I have tried to describe above.