The following are two short essays and somewhat of a creative/reflective memoir I wrote as my final for American Literature.
I. Essay (40 points) On page 275 of Just Kids, we have this exchange between Robert and Patti:
“’Patti, did art get us?’”
‘I don’t know Robert. I don’t know.’
Perhaps it did, but no one could regret that. Only a fool would regret being had by art; or a saint.”
Agree, disagree, or take the proverbial middle road in regards to Patti’s assertion. Consider what art does and should mean to American society, maybe especially in our current era.
The Meaning of Art
For artists, being understood and evoking emotion is the most important goal of their work. Patti Smith repeatedly refers to Robert Mapplethorpe as the “artist of her life” throughout her book Just Kids, a collection of memoirs about her life with her longtime friend and controversial artist Robert. Patti is an artist of many trades; she writes poetry and songs, is a successful recording artist and now a published author of a novel. This memoir is a form of art because Robert wanted their story to be told, not for people to glorify him, but because their story was art. He once said to Patti, “We never had any children,” and to that Patti answered saying, “Our work was our children” (274). Their work, their story, is art that evokes feeling from those that read it. Overall, Robert and Patti were both successful artists, maybe not the most famous, but they allowed themselves to “be had” by art and never regretted doing so.
Being a successful artist does not being the most famous or making a great amount of money. Success in art is about creating not only work but provoking feeling in an audience, sometimes by being so blunt that people can’t turn away, creating a lasting impression and demanding attention and thought. It is extremely hard for people, especially Americans, to examine themselves and their culture entirely because doing so will undoubtedly reveal flaws in their lifestyles. Robert Mapplethorpe was a successful artist, however, only understood by some during his lifetime. Most of his work was not appreciated until after his death and honestly, even then, many never understood him because he made people uncomfortable. Reflecting on the time he started creating the images he did, Robert was only trying to convey the culture of that time period, postmarking a period in history with a new sexual lifestyle. Robert’s intention was to portray the inner conflict of a man who experimented with homosexuality and he was able to use himself as a muse for doing so. Robert’s work was considered offensive by some, but his aim was to please his audience, “And yet when I look at Robert’s work, his subjects are not saying, Sorry I have my cock hanging out. He’s not sorry and doesn’t want anybody else to be. He wanted his subjects to be pleased with his photographs, whether it was an S&M guy shoving nails in his dick or a glamorous socialite” (236). Robert had the opportunity to create something that had never been created before. Not only did he embrace the homosexual scene, he added the gender reversal effect of drag and the shocking aspects of the S&M culture. Patti explains, “When I asked him what drove him to take such pictures, he said that someone had to do it, and it might as well be him. He had a privileged position for seeing acts of extreme consensual sex and his subjects trusted him. His mission was not to reveal, but to document an aspect of sexuality as art, as it had never been done before. What excited Robert the most was to produce something that no one else had done” (236). Robert wanted to create something that the world had not yet seen, and he did. By doing so, it seems that art “got” Robert because he accomplished what he set out to do, create an original, thought provoking compilation of photos.
Artists should be appreciated by society because they are constantly making history, either by recording by music, creating paintings or taking photographs, of what everyday life is like. Art, all forms, will be looked at in days to come as a vessel of understanding what everyday life used to be like. Robert opened America’s eyes to the S&M culture, the nightlife revolving around drag, a lifestyle that most wished to ignore. In doing so, I would think that art got him because his message, America is made up of different people that are of atypical sexual orientations, was able to be received by those that welcomed it and at least provoked thoughts by those that didn’t because his pieces were so blunt. To be able to create something is a gift not all people have, and for those that do have it, it takes a lot of character to create things not everyone wishes to see. When Patti is in Paris, she is asked, “Why do you young people not honor your poets?” Her only response is “I do not know,” (232). Artists should be celebrated and honored more than they are today and as for why they aren’t, I do not know either.
II. “…there is no American identity without a sense of portent and doom…[and] the shape of a certain kind of American hero, to pass judgment on itself…passing that judgment on America is everyone’s burden and liberation. It’s what it means to be a citizen; all of citizenship, all taxes and freedoms, flows from that obligation. To be obliged to judge one’s country is also to have the right to do it.”
To me, this seems the central tenet of Marcus’s argument. So respond to his charge, bringing in a breadth of literature we’ve discussed this semester. Anything we’ve read, seen, heard is fair game for you to use in your response. What are your judgments, your obligations, as both a student of American literature, and through that vehicle, as an American citizen?
Throughout this class, I have been privileged to explore how America’s judgments of specific race, gender, and roles in society have evolved over time, in accordance with our founding fathers vision for this self-established nation and how those judgments shape our notion of what being a civilized American means. Our society passes judgment upon people based on their gender and racial ethnicity, and these judgments constitute whether one is civilized in our society or not. While it is necessary to have some standards in place that we judge our society by, it is not necessary to judge and punish people based on things they can’t control such as gender or race. According to Marcus, our obligation to pass judgment is also what liberates us; however, I disagree because after everything we’ve read and discussed our judgments seem to make us a group of shallow, close-minded individuals, not an exceptional city on the hill.
When America was originally founded, there were laws established by our founders that were seemingly fair and just for all citizens. Of course, to be a citizen, you had to be a white male, so the laws ironically didn’t exactly apply to everyone, opposing their original intent. As regards race, black people were considered ¾ of a person therefore, didn’t have voting rights or other citizenship privileges. Our society decided the value of a person and their abilities based solely on their skin color and this prejudice toward blacks constricted our society. As Faulkner describes in his novel, Light in August, being a black man was considered worse than being a murderer. “QUOTE.” Pre judging a black person with the expectation that they are less than a person with white skin does not make our society exceptional, it makes us ignorant. Marcus also asserts the role of God into this equation (28). If God created all of us, and He created us all differently, to deny those differences is to deny God. God’s intent was for us to live among each other and to celebrate the variety he designed. By breaking each other down instead of building up as a society that embraces its differences, we are defying God’s original intent for our creation, thus failing as a society.
Women were regarded as insignificant to society upon America’s founding. Women had set roles they were supposed to fill and those roles included keeping the home, taking care of the children and mostly keeping quiet and obeying their husband. When one deviated from this pathway, they were regarded as wild and many committed suicide as a way out of this undeserved labeling. In Chopin’s Awakening, this close-minded expectation of women is exemplified in the character Edna and suicide as escape is her reality. Edna is portrayed as an unconventional American mother and wife. She can even be deemed selfish in some ways, especially when it comes to her children. Edna never seems to desire having more children, or even enjoying those she had. She says of them, “Their absence was a sort of relief…It seemed to free her of a responsibility which she had blindly assumed and for which Fate had not fitted her” (439). She believes she has a greater calling than to raise children, especially when she depicts them as a responsibility she does not seem to care for. Edna does many more unconventional things that were seen as unfitting for a woman during this time, such as buying her own house and keeping company with a single man, ultimately drowning herself to escape society’s harsh judgment.
The shallow way our society has judged people based on skin color and gender has sadly made us ordinary instead of extraordinary. So, to respond to Marcus’ assertion that we must judge ourselves in order to be proper citizens, we must have some sense of right and wrong that is true. However, the way we have judged ourselves in the past has set us up for failure. We have allowed ourselves to pre judge people based on their skin color or gender instead of giving justice to all, as our founding fathers, and God, intended for us to do. As an American citizen and student of American literature this past semester, I have learned to change the way I approach those that are different from myself. I have been able to tear down some racial divides that I was aware I had, and although I never intentionally considered myself superior because I was white, I didn’t try to change the way I thought about black people until recently, after studying the inequalities they had to endure throughout history because our society cast judgment stubbornly based on appearance. In conclusion, I have written a short, reflective memoir about an encounter I had that made me consider what I’ve learned from this class.
I must say, all things considered, prior to participating in this class I had my set opinions and judgments about people of a specific race, gender or class. I like to think of myself as a person who sees the good in everyone, but then again, who doesn’t wish to see themselves that way? Throughout this class, I noticed a slight change in the way I viewed people who I had originally dismissed because of a preconceived notion I had about them. I was able to step back and see their circumstances outside of my own and from their point of view. This newly developed discernment allowed me to empathize with these people I had so easily discounted because of the stereotype I had built up of “their type” in my head. I’d like to recount an event to you that occurred just this morning because this is an example of why I thought like I did and reiterates the fact that I am not completely unbiased, and probably will not ever be, although I do believe I am somewhat less black and white on the controversy of race. I wake up on Saturday morning, ready for a full day of academic work in hopes of advancing my knowledge in preparation for the upcoming exam week. While most of my friends are sleeping away the effects of alcohol and bad decisions, I am heading to McDonald’s to grab a coffee to wake me up. As I am waiting for the bagel I ordered, the flavor of the day being charcoal I discovered when I later unwrapped my purchase, a black man dressed in a yellow t-shirt, faded jean shorts down to his shins, and Timberland sneakers walks in. As he speaks, I notice he is missing four teeth and the ones he does have favor the color of his shirt. This man most likely has not showered in the past day or two and is clearly under the influence of some sort of drug, yet he is clutching a crisp twenty-dollar bill with his left hand, visible grime under his long fingernails and all. The McDonald’s cashier says “Next order!” and looks at this man, who is standing among us that already ordered, making nonsensical remarks like “I coulda done made my own breakfast at home by now.” He acknowledges that she was speaking to him and starts searching his pockets, saying “But I aint got no ticket…no, no…aint got one.” The cashier, visibly annoyed and also black, flatly says “You don’t need one,” to him and he approaches the counter. He proceeds to ask her “Where my Big Mac I ordered at?” Of course, it was a little after 9:00 am and only breakfast was available. Thus, it was obvious this man was not in a clear state of mind, and obviously high. Finally, an older black man with no apparent relation to this crazed one approached him, apologizing to everyone around, and ushered him away, explaining to him that it was breakfast time. This moment is probably an everyday experience for the McDonald’s staff, but it had an impact on this Liberal Arts student who has been studying race and equality among Americans in English class. I left with my order baffled by what I had just seen because for the past few months, I have been trying to alter my way of thinking to compensate people of different ethnicities than mine and this exchange made me think, why bother? This man has such a different lifestyle than mine, the cashier’s and probably the older man who talked some sense into him, yet we all met briefly in this fast-food restaurant, our different lives entwined similarly for a moment. I wonder how that dirty man lives day-to-day, how he survives doing drugs, how he can stumble into McDonald’s, completely unaware of the time of day, with a twenty in his hand. How do people like that get by? Then I think, “he’s just black,” but then I realize, so was the cashier, so was the other man, and they don’t have the same lifestyles as he did. I have an inner conflict because I like to analyze things, each subject grouped in its own category with similarities. I am supposed to believe “All Men Are Created Equal,” but if we were all created equal, how did we all get to where we are today, places of inequality and places where we are so concerned about our name, our standing among our “equals”? If this black man can get by, why do other working black people struggle to, why are some of the most successful people in the world black? Why, in America, does everyone get a fair chance, with “equal” rights? Why can this man survive doing drugs and have money to freely spend, and healthy people who can’t make ends meet are being diagnosed with cancer every day? It’s not fair, just, right or something I can analyze. My bias of race has been broken, but I am not completely sure what has replaced that prejudice because the unfairness of what is everyday America opposed to the principles of equality this country was originally founded on frustrates me.