Friday, February 16, 2007

Insider vs. Outsider: An Analogue

In "Professing Multiculturalism: The Politics of Style in the Contact Zone," Min-zhan Lu asks the following question: "[W]hy do we assume. . . that until one can prove one’s ability to produce ‘error-free’ prose, one has not earned the right to innovative ‘style’?" (170). This line of inquiry, exemplified by the preceding Gertrude Stein and Theodore Dreiser anecdotes (as well as by Bartholomae’s anecdote about Quentin Pierce), particularly interests me because it demands that I consider the notion of an insider writer versus an outsider writer. This is exactly the type of consideration I’ve not thus far "deigned" to do from my lofty perch upon the high horse of honky privilege (as I choose to call it). That is, I never really thought to evaluate the work of an outsider (i.e. "untrained" or "imperfectly educated") writer on any grounds other than what’s wrong with it and how can it be fixed? That such a work may constitute an articulate and unique expression of an identifiable and inherently valid worldview has generally eluded me because of the obsessive concerns about mechanics and convention that I’ve been trained to worry about, first and foremost.

That said, it occurs to me that perhaps an analogue to this relationship exists in the world of visual arts with the Art versus Folk or Outsider art dichotomy. On the one side are those who would be quick to justify certain styles of painting—say cubism, for instance—on the grounds that a given artist has been classically trained and/or educated and thus his compositions are the result of artistic intent rather than a lack of skill or proficiency in the medium. On the other side, then, are those who would argue that an artist’s intent, in relation to his skill or proficiency, is irrelevant; rather, the only matter of relevance is a given composition’s impact on its viewer. Basically, it’s an argument wherein one might contend that a cubist portrait by Picasso has more artistic merit than a cubist portrait rendered by an untrained folk artist, even if the latter composition is equal in every perceivable way. No matter which side you of this argument you inhabit, there persists the elitist and dogmatic distinction between so-called Art and so-called outsider or folk art, where the former is afforded a much greater social and economic currency than the latter à la insider writing versus outsider writing. Even so, and contrary to outsider writing, outsider art can be argued to possess in the very least a limited measure of recognition and prestige within the visual arts—a distinction that may or may not be worthy of further consideration. [Sorry for the lack of clarity and abrupt stop—I’ll be back later to add and edit.]

Lu, Min-zhan. "Professing Multiculturalism: The Politics of Style in the Contact Zone." Representing the "Other." Urbana: NCTE, 1999.

Friday, February 9, 2007

"Man will not survive, he is a asshole"

Let me start by stating right from the get-go that I wasn’t so much frightened or intimidated by the form or content of Quentin Pierce’s fuck you essay as I was moved by its explicit indictment of an educational system that has failed, and continues to fail, its author ("Thank you very much//I lose again" [173; emphasis mine]). Consequently, I was both baffled and disappointed by Bartholomae’s assessment that, in addition to expressing an idea about existentialism, the fuck you essay was simply "a dramatic and skillful way of saying ‘Fuck you-I’m not the loser, you are’" (173). It’s as if Bartholomae, still smarting from the personal indictment some eighteen years after the fact, persists in focusing on his self-perceived guilt for having "failed the ‘basic writers’ of [his] Freshman English class," and Quentin in particular (173). While that’s perhaps an admirable sentiment to harbor, Bartholomae nonetheless fails to acknowledge Quentin’s larger indictment and its implication of an individual who is acutely and painfully aware of the long shot odds on his academic success.

That said, I agree with the student in our class (sorry, ol’ boy, your name escapes me) who suggested that Bartholomae should’ve made a positive demonstration of Quentin’s paper in class. He could have praised its merits—because it certainly has some—and perhaps discussed how one might rewrite a less-explicit version of Quentin’s essay without compromising the power of its content. (Personally, I would’ve stuck with the merits, including the power and function of its explicit language and perhaps even reading some Ginsberg as proof of a kind of a literary legitimacy.) Or, to answer concerns of potential copycatting by other class members, he could’ve used this essay as a prompt for an exercise challenging students to use explicit language in a meaningful way. Regardless, he should’ve have done something to validate and encourage Quentin’s efforts. By doing nothing Bartholomae merely lent credence to Quentin’s assertion that he has, once again, lost.

Bartholomae, David. “The Tidy House: Basic Writing in the American Curriculum.” Landmark Essays on Basic Writing. Mahwah: Erlbaum, 2001.