Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Artistic Eye (or Let's Get Offended)

As someone who has spent a lot of time drawing, painting and designing, I'd like to think that I have a fairly decent eye for composition, color and line. Because of this, I'd like to make a few proposals. First of all, I'd like to go in and change Leonardo DaVinci's "Last Supper". I'd like to take Judas Iscariot out of it. To be honest, he just offends my Christian sensibilities. I mean, the man sold Christ out for 30-pieces of silver. The second thing I'd like to do is add some more details to almost all of Claude Monet's work because I think that Impressionism is just too vague. Finally, I'd like to gesso over all of Jackson Pollock's work and completely repaint new paintings ont he canvases because I'm offended by the fact that they're non-representational.

Are you cocking your head and arching an eyebrow, yet? Maybe thinking this guy is off his rocker? If you are, then you're probably not alone. The art I'm mentioning is classic stuff, perfectly in tune with what the artist intended and exactly the way the art was meant to be. In short, I have no right to change what the artist has already created and I should back the truck up and shut the heck up. Wouldn't you agree?

You'd probably also agree with me that writers are artists as well. They spend time and creative energy developing endearing characters, sketching gorgeous settings and creating eloquent prose. In short, since they are artists, we should leave their work well enough alone. Period.

Unfortunately, back in January of 2011, Alan Gribben, a Professor of English at Auburn University Montgomery in Montgomery, Alabama and New South Publishing made a decision to edit out the n-word from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. The uproar among Twain historians that followed was nothing short of explosive.

Gribben's reason for removing the word (which is by all standards probably the most repulsive word in the English language in my opinion) is noble, but, I believe, misguided. Gribben is quoted in a Wikipedia article as having stated:

For nearly forty years I have led college classes, bookstore forums, and library reading groups in detailed discussions of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in California, Texas, New York, and Alabama, and I always recoiled from uttering the racial slurs spoken by numerous characters, including Tom and Huck. I invariably substituted the word “slave” for Twain’s ubiquitous n-word whenever I read any passages aloud. Students and audience members seemed to prefer this expedient, and I could detect a visible sense of relief each time, as though a nagging problem with the text had been addressed.

As an author, I can't accept this as a valid reason for mutilating the work of an artist. Simply put, Twain is a master of the writing craft and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a masterpiece. There should be no change to the book, chapters, paragraphs, sentences, words or letters within this work of art.

In fact, Hemingway once said of the book, "All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called 'Huckleberry Finn.' If you read it you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating. But it's the best book we've had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since." -Ernest Hemingway The Green Hills of Africa.

Twain's word choice was ruthless and meaningful and within the historical context of a nation that was ready to embark upon one of the most painful moments in its history. It confronted the issues of racism and slavery and mercilessly eviscerates the status quo. To remove this word from the text of Twain's book is to rob the work of its power to confront the issues of racism, slavery and unequal, horrendous treatment of human beings head on.

Gribben counters that the use of the word makes students and teachers alike uncomfortable and that because of this, the book is being eliminated from the curricula of many school districts. Therein lies the real problem. Do we re-paint Munch's "The Scream" because it makes us uncomfortable? Do we hide Egon Schele's canvases because they show us the true physical nature of our humanity? Do we burn Andres Serrano's photograph "Piss Christ" because it upsets our sensibilities? We do not. We allow the artist his or her vision and we respect their right to produce their art.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is meant to cause discomfort. It's meant to strip away the glossy enamel of our safe, non-confrontational and non-controversial lives and force us to start a dialogue about these issues. It's meant to force teachers to help students ask the question, "Why would Huck Finn refer to his friend Jim in this manner if he knows it's wrong?" "Why were people like this during this time in history and do we still face these same types of challenges today?"

While this issue grabbed headlines back in January, I noticed something that bothers me even more than the editing of the n-word that Gribben has done. Gribben also edited the word "Injun" into "Indian". In general, the reference to "Injun" is in the form of dialect and dialogue when people refer to a character named "Injun Joe". This subtle change is simply another shot across the bow of the artist's vision. In both cases of word edits we are seeing the beginnings of blatant censorship. Further, I believe that this type of activity by an editor and/or publisher may cause authors to self-censor to the extent that the works we read in the future will be nothing but non-confrontational, non-controversial, bland and flavorless bits of pathetic prose.

Gribben makes another statement that I want to call out. He tells The Birmingham News, "I’ve gotten dozens and dozens of e-mails, most of them very critical of me," he said. "One thing that has amused me about it is that in the e-mails that take me to task for substituting the word ‘slave,’ not one of these hotly worded e-mails has mentioned the n-word. ... They won’t say the word, and they won’t write the word."

You'll notice that within the text of this blog post, I too have chosen to avoid using the n-word as well. Professor Gribben, there is a reason we don't use the word. There is no need. In e-mails sent to you and in this blog post, you know exactly what word we're referring to. In Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, there is a necessity for the reader to be confronted with the discomfort of that most hateful word.

For the record Professor Gribben, I don't despise you for what you're doing. You have the best intentions, I'm sure. Unfortunately, the road to hell is paved with good intentions and you've just laid down miles of new asphalt headed in that direction.

That's all for now.

1 comment:

  1. So, does this guy Gribben think he is righting some wrong?? Gotta lotta balls rewording that book. I've always thought that when Twain wrote that story, (especially being in the south) nigger was just negro with the southern twang on it. At that time I don't think it was even necessarily derogatory.
    Just because the past has some 'ugly' on it, doesn't mean someone can fix it 100 plus years later by rewording it . . . let the work sand on it's own. In my opinion the word slave carries more offense . . .