Anne M. Burton: Calling out the Arts Council and the poet laureate

  • Doris Madsen, holds her piece “400 years later #4,” that has become the subject of criticism from Jason Montgomery resulting in the cancellation of the Northampton Arts Council biennial show which was scheduled to open at Forbes Library. Gazette file photo

Published: 10/7/2021 1:37:50 PM

Wow, it is difficult to know whether I am more appalled by the Northampton Arts Council’s decision to deprive the community and the participating artists of this exhibit, or by the ageist, racist and sexist (“old white women”) superficially reasoned comment by Mr. Montgomery that led to its cancellation. (“Complaint cancels art show,” Oct. 6)

Art can have many purposes, one of which is to provoke viewers to perceive in a new way and provoke dialogue. But none of the purposes is to make images (verbal or visual) so bland as to not offend or provoke anyone to rethink or reevaluate perceptions.

I was so concerned by the Mr. Montgomery’s comment that the Arts Council was, by showing Ms. Madden’s work, (the content of which provoked me to think about being haunted by the ghosts of peoples who have been destroyed by racist genocide), disregarding “Indigenous voices and Native voices in favor of old white women who want to discuss this because suddenly it’s become something they’ve had to learn about… is reprehensible.”

His comment was neither well reasoned or accurate, in that the jurors chose art on the basis of the work, never discussing the balance of gender, race, age, or class of the artists whose work was chosen.

What is reprehensible is that Mr. Montgomery, by virtue of his own genes, believes he speaks for all people who have experienced oppression; and, that he would silence eloquent allies, like Ms. Madsen, because she is not genetically qualified to address racial injustice.

Concerned that I was overreacting, I phoned a Navajo family member (by marriage) to discuss this point of view. She, a longtime activist for Native Americans, said she would never assume to speak for the feelings of the entire Navajo Nation, or for all other Indigenous nations. And she reminded me that Navajos could use and welcome all the voices that remind non-Navajos of injustices the people of the Diné suffer.

So, I am calling out both the Arts Council for caving in to a “person of color” who expressed a specious argument, when they would never have cancelled the Biennial because of the objections of a white supremacist. If an art exhibit provokes profound conversation, it has done what art should do.

Mr. Montgomery could have withdrawn from, picketed, written a scathing poem about the exhibit, or any particular work in it. He has been permitted to censor an artist because he thinks she has no right to the content of her work. He has successfully censored the voices of all the other artists whose works would have been seen. And he has deprived all of us of being moved, changed, or given pleasure by encountering the ideas of artists.

The poet laureate of Easthampton has chosen to label an art work as “genocide art.” Is that a category like magical realist, abstract expressionist, impressionist art? I thought that poets choose their words very carefully and deliberately, as visual artists choose their images.

A warning when planning future exhibits, if you choose to reach out for submissions from artists of specific ethnicity, age, gender choice, or social “class,” please be sure that those categories are hidden when the jurors are making choices of which “art” is worthy of inclusion. Invite criticism, not censorship.

Anne Burton lives in Amherst. She is old, female,“white or not-white” (depending on who is judging), an image maker and poet.

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