"Noah Purifoy making artwork with students" Via: Hammer Museum

Amiri Baraka was among the most cogent critics of U.S. literary scholarship. Baraka’s poetry, plays, and organizing always confronted the imbrications of race, class and empire in American life, and sometimes, in the life of American ideas. Like the rest of his work, Baraka’s literary and cultural criticism was unabashedly political. Indeed, for Baraka, criticism's significance—in the scheme of intellectual and artistic production—was almost paramount. As he wrote in 1980: “the main line is that class struggle is as much a part of the arts as it is anyplace else. (And criticism especially, as Mao instructed us in the "Yenan Forum," is one place where open class struggle always rages.)” But his criticism of criticism was not confined to his essays. In his poem “Sin Soars!,” he skewers the New Critics:

English Department Skull & Crossbones
New Critic Klansman is
Deconstructing the day
Name for night slaughter
They laugh, They soul they do not have

Baraka’s critique, elaborated in prose below, extends to the whole academic and cultural field. His plea is for politically engaged intellectual and cultural work that goes beyond the university. Baraka's is a demand for a revolutionary art and critical practice beyond the individual. As Robin D.G. Kelley put it: "Like most scholars and other voyeurs, we are always listening for, and looking at, art for personal tragedy rather than collective memory, collective histories. Amiri Baraka understood the fallacy of this approach." Here, Baraka’s writing echoes that of Edward Said in his 1979 essay on American “Left” literary criticism, as he ironically named it:

One's impression is that the young critic has a well-developed political sense, yet close examination of this sense reveals a haphazard anecdotal content enriched neither by much knowledge of what politics and political issues are all about nor by any very developed awareness that politics is something more than liking or disliking some intellectual orthodoxy now holding sway over a department of literature.


The reactionary trend of the 1950s which produced McCarthyism and the Hollywood and academic purges, the Korean War, and Eisenhower was reflected in American literature by its domination by a punishingly dry, highly mannered magazine verse equipped with hot and cold running Latin and Greek phrases mit footnotes and the emotional significance of a New York Times crossword puzzle.

This kind of literature was trumpeted and proselytized by the so-called New Criticism, which sought to remove all social relationship from poetry, from literature generally, making it a completely solipsistic and elitist artifact that jingled stiffly about its not not self.

As it turned out the New Critics were hardly that. Their leaders like Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, Cleanth Brooks, and Robert Penn Warren were identified with the Southern Agrarian Movement. (Allen Tate's book Reactionary Essays says most of it!) The Southern Agrarians preached a national chauvinist and metaphysical sentimentalization of the Chattel Slave Empire, claiming that industrialization was destroying the South, and a culture that ranked with the Greek Attic.

But the raised level of U.S. productive forces after WWII and the Korean War ex- panded advanced industrial labor and educational access to a much broader segment of the U.S. population, particularly to the second-generation immigrants and new generations of blacks. There were ideas set in motion that disrupted the basic dis- position of class forces in post-Korean War U.S., that challenged the basic social relations of the society, particularly to class privilege in the U.S. and white supremacy, the fundamental social organization of imperialist U.S. society...

...We are in the midst of a deep reactionary period when revolution is once again held up as fantastic and only cynicism and betrayal and upholding the status quo qualify as realism. In the 1960s indeed, "Revolution Is the Main Trend in the World Today," that's what we used to say. "Countries want Independence, Nations want Liberation, People want Revolution." But that is when the principal contradiction in the world was Imperialism vs. the People and Nations. But soon after, the contradiction of Imperialism vs. Imperialism, which is the trend that leads to imperialist war, became principal, and the revolutionary movements were turned around by rising fascism.

We are at a crossroads in that struggle today. The attempt to restore the so-called literary canon to make political prisoners of world art and culture in the name of some self-aggrandizing superculture with neither origins nor relationship to the rest of the world is simply white supremacy returned. You cannot speak of Greek culture without relating it to the whole of the ancient world from which it sprang and which it continues to reflect.

In the Channel 13 bit of Goebbelsmania called The Art of the Western World, a statement was made that "Creativity began in Greece." Naturally I wrote letters to them and a number of other folks challenging this mindless protofascism. A white rock critic for the Star Ledger told me "Creativity did begin in Greece . . . for the Europeans." Any way you take this it's gas chamber logic, but then this was Boy speaking not Tarzan.

There is no life or culture, no art or philosophy separated from the whole expression of human life and being on the planet. It is the separation that is the first strand of barbed wire for the fences at Auschwitz, the more modern versions of southern plantations.

For those of us in the arts or the universities, those of us involved with the institutions and ideas of the U.S. superstructure, we must see that the only positive direction we can go, that is the direction of life supported over death, is cultural revolution. We must oppose the reinstitution of the racist canon, like we resist Part 25 of Friday the 13th or Rambo 11.

For instance, we must join forces to socialize the university and all institutions that affect our lives. By socialize I mean to make the university deal with real life and the actual society in which it stands. If the university is the repository for higher learning, advanced philosophy, and innovative technology, why are the cities in which they stand so bereft of these resources? There is no other way to measure ideas' usefulness except in the crucible of real life.

The university professor is never made to measure his ideas in relationship to the real world, in relation to how much change (i.e., human advance) or how close to reality the world measures those ideas to be, but is valorized only by the abstract and frankly elitist interacademic dialogue. We publish for each other or to get tenure, we create and do research for the same reasons. While the great challenge, real life, real society, stands ailing and ill because our resources have been removed.

Why poor education, unemployment, no housing, drug panics in these cities and communities of our world if the universities are full of so many self-proclaimed geniuses and mountains of ominously profound conclusions? The university must be made to relate to these cities, to establish partnerships in developing real life to higher and higher levels of understanding and sophistication, not stand aside and praise itself for being so clean and so heavy and so outside everything, as is mostly now the case.

The cultural revolution at the university must see Black Studies, Latino Studies, Woman and Labor Studies as the missing links of progressive education and preparation for a new and more humanized world society. Ignorance and lack of education must be made extinct. It is dangerous to the whole world for uneducated masses to exist. The extent to which we raise the world educational level is the extent to which we raise our own consciousness and the level of human life on the planet.

Such studies must also be extended to the high schools and elementary schools, and used in psychological tests for public employees to make sure none of them suffers from the vicious illness of racism and male chauvinism or some other fascist malady which we will lament once we see another black youth stretched out on the ground with a bullet in his head, not for playing his radio too loud, but for being black or Latino, or raped, not for playing her radio too loud, but for being a woman.

Another critical aspect of Cultural Revolution is that we must support the presence of art and artists in the educational process from elementary through university. Art is the main force against Arent. It is the creative aspect of being through which it is maintained. The development and destiny of humanity is contained more directly in essence in its art than any other dimension. The very devaluing of art is evident throughout society. There is no university without art. Art is the social life of humanity, its philosophical expression the ideological reflection of human life. To devalue it is to devalue creativity. Talk about creativity to the big money guys, and its, ha ha, a joke, you know. Yet their big money comes from the control of people and society the control of their art, from the most basic art, the creation of society itself, to the articles of its expression. Whether clothes, furniture, music, food, houses, it is all art. Let us be clear it is not academic life that is principal but creative life, the question of human development and evolution. The critical, the academic, are secondary aspects, absolutely necessary, but not to be confused with the making of what is, the continuing of life in opposition to death.

Excerpt from: Amiri Baraka, “Cultural Revolution and the Literary Canon,” Calaloo 14:1 (1991)

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