• allisontgruber

Art Powers

I have made a life in “The Arts” –specifically the literary/English language “arts,” but also in The Arts, more broadly. I like it all. And I like Art that still has Art Power. For me, Art Power is that feeling you get when you look at a painting, or hear a piece of music, or read a bit of prose that causes something very deep and primal inside of you to shift somehow. The affect of art with Art Powers is visceral. For me, at least. The art in my home is a mishmash of the Art that I enjoy: album covers, Chicago House fliers from the 1980s, my grandmother’s quilting, a framed print of the cover of my first book, You’re Not Edith, a small photo of a flier for an Anne Sexton reading – I have no idea how or where I came by said flier, but it has been important enough to keep through all my many moves since I was nineteen years old. I do remember I have had this Anne Sexton flier since I was still a teenager. May not be an original flier. Might be from a book. Who knows.

Anne Sexton had Art Power. I have not revisited her work in a while, but I would guess some of her Art Power – particularly that which spoke to the grotesquerie of White, moneyed, American femininity – has remained in tact. Her work never achieved the ubiquity of, say, Plath. And as a testament to Plath’s talents as a writer, I feel much of her work (save for “Daddy”) preserves its Art Powers despite its prevalence in classrooms across this country.

Robert Frost, for my money, has lost all Art Powers owing to ubiquity and naivety. There are better living poets writing well on the very same matters Frost charmingly rendered in another American century, in another America. And for these reasons, I never presented Frost in the high school ELA classrooms where I taught.

Comedians, too, gain and lose Art Powers. One comedian who has retained his Art Powers for me, since I was quite young, is Dave Chapelle who found himself at the center of a controversy when he released a Netflix special and was daring enough to speak on the American Cultural Taboo of Gender and Gender Activism on the White American Left. Many of my leftist friends never watched the special and continued on with their personal “cancellations” of this artist and his work. I did not speak on this in any blogs or classrooms because I wanted to sit with the matter a while, and consider ifI wanted to throw my opinions onto The Internet. Years after the Left Wing fabricated “scandal,” I am still thinking about it, and still thinking of Chapelle’s Art Powers.

The line the Left Wing ran to the general public: Dave Chapelle spoke on gender and queerness, as a cisgender straight man, and therefore is transphobic and hates trans people. Now, I am not trans, but I know and love a great many Americans who are. I am not trans, and I watched The Closer not once but twice, and no where in Chapelle’s text (and comedy is a text) does the man suggest he seeks to put vulnerable groups into harms way. Rather what Chapelle does is he goes “off the acceptable Political Rhetoric,” in that he commits the Left Wing Sin of challenging some of the rhetoric of the Left Wing.* *I do not give a fuck what Trumpers, or staunch supporters of the GOP feel about any of these matters. They are fascists.

And if you listen to what Chappelle actually says in The Closer in re: The White American Left and Gender and even more importantly Race and Class, if you have a relatively discerning intellect, you will realize what Chapelle is doing is speaking Truth to Power, only this Truth is aimed at the Power within White American Leftist “movements.” Chapelle, a Black American, spoke (sometimes clumsy) Truth to Power, putting into action the very act that my fellow liberals tout as being among the most essential acts and then my fellow liberals – not the Right Wing this time, but the Left Wing – tried to destroy the man’s career. Insanity.

And I would see this insanity play out in my high school classrooms, where confused young people wanted to “cancel” important works of art (one cohort of Uber Leftist Students did try to get me fired for teaching Beloved in AP Literature) because they made them feel uncomfortable. I didn’t teach the work of avowed Nazis. I didn’t teach the work of insanely racist White people (all White writers tend to be a little racist), and I didn’t teach anything with a message that didn’t always loop back to the whole point of anything: compassion, empathy, primal Love. So it was never about the “message” of the texts, it was about the “uncomfortable feeling” they inspired, and that uncomfortable feeling is the Art Power trying to shift a perspective inside of you. The unpleasantness you feel when confronted with Art Power is the discomfort of your resistance to the Art’s power.

The purpose of True Art is not to simply confirm our own beliefs and experiences, but to underst and our own beliefs and experiences in the context of the primordial connective tissue that binds all living things in energy and life. This is what I truly believe about Art’s purpose. Connection. What my friend Janet calls “ongoing-ness.” Art with Art Power should bring us to a new sense of connection, of ongoingness . . .

Dave Chapelle does this for me. As a feminist he has challenged me. I dislike some of what he says about women, but I also dislike much of what my favorite rock bands say about women, and I don’t stop listening to rock music because the good stuff, even when it’s complicated by perspectives that I do not share with the Artist, still might have (and often does have) Art Power. Like even before I called myself a Feminist, I knew Andrew DIce Clay’s schtick was abhorrent and dangerous. I would ask my students this when we considered a text from an “I-don’t-like-what-this-Artist-believed” framework: Is the Artist making you complicit in their Art? And if not, we would generally proceed. Viewing Andrew Dice Clay, laughing at his schtick, makes me feel complicit in woman-hating. So I don’t watch. I don’t wish to cancel the man because the man does not come to my home to make me listen to his misogyny and the man is not in Congress (truly, I’d feel better if it was Andrew Dice Clay, and not Ted Cruz, in Congress), so what do I care if some mouth breathing White American Males enjoy his grossness? I don’t.

Chapelle, though, while at times too sexist for my personal preference, is not puerile. (I mean, sometimes all Comedians are quite puerile to suit the tastes of the Average American Person.) Chapelle is an hilarious philosopher, damn near sage. And after I saw The Closer, the special that garnered so much baseless controversy, I understood that my fellow American Left Wingers are as dumb, en masse, as my fellow American Right Wingers. No critical thinking. No nuance. No capacity to be honest with themselves, much less those around them. And we need Artists like Chapelle to drive this fact home for some of us who, like me, wish for a better America, still carry on a shred of hope for the future because we owe this to the children who will inherit our messes.

When I was teaching middle school in Tucson, my 6th graders and I memorized the following passage. As part of a unit on Civil Rights, I taught them some James Baldwin (biographical details and this excerpt, as Baldwin is a bit too complex for most little kids). We used this passage to understand metaphor, perspective, articulating beliefs. After the unit the kids wrote their own “quotes” and we put them on broadsides. It was beautiful.

If you are bored today, you should watch The Closer. If you have “cancelled” Chapelle in your mind, but have an open mind and compassion today, you should watch The Closer. You can wince, but don’t let the wincing distract you from the Art Powers of that text.

Baldwin passage memorized with middle schoolers during the 2021 - 2022 American School Year here:

One must say Yes to life, and embrace it wherever it is found — and it is found in terrible places. … For nothing is fixed, forever and forever, it is not fixed; the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock. Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them because we are the only witnesses they have. The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out. - James Baldwin, Nothing Personal

And here's a Youtube Review of a film that has sorta kept its Art Powers:

Be good, hooligans.

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