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Article
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Culture

When George Zimmerman was acquitted

I’m at an elite writers’ colony on the east coast of the United States when the news comes through: George Zimmerman is not guilty in the shooting manslaughter of Trayvon Martin. As the token Australian, people take care to explain the situation to me. Martin, an African-American youth, was walking home from buying candy and a soda on the night of 26 February 2012 when he was followed by neighbourhood watchman Zimmerman (despite Zimmerman having been told repeatedly by 911 operators to desist). An altercation ensued and Martin, unarmed, was shot to death.

Around the table our assortment of artists – composers, sculptors, poets and painters – evince different types of shock reactions. There is a surprising amount of humour, mostly politically incorrect; someone says that not only has Zimmerman been found not guilty, he has now been promoted to honorary white person (Zimmerman is commonly identified in media reports as ‘half-hispanic’). But the humour is of a true tragic type – Lear half mad acting the fool against the elements. Down the table from me, someone asks the question that will be repeated over and over: ‘How can we be here, when this is happening out there?’

Most of the time, to continue using Shakespeare for figurative purposes, the colony is like Midsummer Night’s Dream. We work in dream states alone throughout the day, convene in a mansion in a forest for dinner, and drunkenly run through the woods at night. All talk is of lovers – who is and who isn’t. In one day you might write a poem, go to a presentation of a new opera in the Rococo drinks room, become a god at ping-pong, kiss someone you shouldn’t, cry on the shoulder of the best person you’ve ever met (who you only met the day before), fall asleep in your four-poster bed, forget it happened, and repeat it the following day. That is to say, it’s an unreal environment; the exact environment you imagine is the perfect furnace for the firing of artistry.

The overwhelming sense here is one of respite and relief. Conversations revolve around how nice it is to be in a place where nobody judges you for being an artist. Many people, with the exception of some of the more famous or successful artists, are candid in their discussions about how low status, how socioeconomically impoverished, the careers we chose to pursue are.

In the twentieth century, Bertolt Brecht developed epic (or dialectical) theatre in opposition to the naturalistic theatre of Soviet propagandists such as Stanislavski. It was dangerous, he proposed, to create art that was as convincing as life; people watching theatre should always be aware that what they are viewing is false.

With Zimmerman’s acquittal, the fourth wall falls off the colony – we go from viewing ourselves as endangered species in need of protection to seeing ourselves in light of the privilege we have in simply being able to create, and the question becomes, exactly what should we be creating now?

These are questions I remember asking myself after the death of Mulrunji Doomadgee on Palm Island in 2004, and again with the Cronulla riots in 2005, and then after the death-in-custody of Mr Ward in 2008. For me, being a white Australian poet has always involved negotiating the slippage between identity and artistry. Yet being here over when Zimmerman was found innocent, I realise I have been guilty of creating another false wall – because it isn’t enough to consider how my work interacts with these Australian contexts. There is an urgent need to reach out beyond our particular selves, our particular nations, and engage in the world.

The question then becomes not just what should we be creating, but how can we go about creating it? It is not a question I know the answer to. But hopefully tonight at dinner with the many multinational artists huddled in these woods, rather than who is hooking up with whom, we might start discussing these questions instead.

 

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Caitlin Maling is a WA poet whose first collection, Conversations I’ve Never Had, was published in 2015. A follow-up collection is due in 2017.

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Comments

  1. Ah, the strength of social media as expressed by a focus on whether or not was a Soviet propagandist!!!
    Such comments allow a thoughtful piece of impassioned writing to be dismissed because of an incidental reference, which may or may not have been accurate, and which should not deter readers from examining the whole piece. And I’m sure Stanislavsky would be able to put the comment in context.
    It seems our ability to let ourselves be sidetracked like this is indeed what Caitlin is asking to be considered. To me, these ‘intellectual’ comments seem to indicate some sort of inability to connect with the enormity of what his society has allowed to happen to this young man.

  2. I should have stopped reading after the words “elite writers colony”. Token white guilt. Performance of “worldliness”. Self indulgent. Enforcement of class. I kept thinking, “Wow, poets sure are arseholes”.

    At least I can say, poet to fellow poet, that I didn’t make George Zimmerman’s acquittal all about ME and my privileged existence. This piece is appalling, and the only time I’ve ever gagged reading Overland Journal.

    • Pretentious musings from an elite artist’s retreat. Somebody just forwarded a link to this article with a comment about how vomit-inducing it was. I cringed at the self indulgence and barely made it to the end.

  3. To be fair, Stanislavski was a defender of Meyerhold under Stalinism. But I have to agree: this article confirms every cliche about the self-indulgent artist.

  4. Considering the photo and headline, this article was really not what I expected it would be.

    • Well, the photo and headline were mine, and seemed justified at the time, given that Trayvon Martin’s shadow hangs over this piece.

      I find some of these reactions curious, seeing as this piece is basically asking how writers and artists should engage with huge – often overwhelming – topics (topics that can make your perspectives shift), and with the world more generally.

      I also think it’s totally valid to describe your surroundings when you heard this news, especially when they feel so removed from reality. I am writing a piece on Trayvon Martin too, and mention that I heard the news on Twitter – an equally surreal place.

      • I guess it just stuck out to me, but understand where you’re coming from too Jacinda

      • The world “elite” is an unfortunate red rag in that very first sentence.

        But this piece addresses the topic of engagement with the world by way of a vacuous question: “How can we be here, when this is happening out there?” That is categorically self-absorbed, and seems to wonder why the news of the day, the aesthetic ammunition, is not within easy reach.

        Well it’s not because you chose to be off on a retreat, eh?

  5. “After I heard about Trayvon Martin I had an epiphany: injustice exists in this world!” This is an acceptable narrative if written by a 14-year-old.

    • So a 17 year old thief is eulogised by an unknown poet living in the lap of luxury at a mansion in the woods. Says it all about the Australian leftard artz bludgers who suck up useless government grants.

    • If an individual straddling another man, beating him with fists and bashing his head against the concrete can get shot, it can happen to anyone, even those of us who frequent ELITE writer’s colonies!

      We are all Trayvon Martin.

      • No, don’t you dare sarcastically associate yourself with Trayvon Martin.

        Zimmerman’s cuts were insignificant injuries and different witnesses said that he either exaggerated them–the police officer who wanted to charge him with manslaughter, or that they didn’t match with what he said after a full medical examination–the physician’s assistant. He didn’t even need to go to hospital. If someone had their head smashed 25-30 times on concrete then they would have had to go to hospital and would certainly have had a concussion. There was also none of Zimmerman’s DNA under Trayvon’s fingernails. There was however Zimmerman’s DNA on the UNDERSHIRT of Trayvon’s hoodie.

        Zimmerman said that Trayvon took his gun. There was no DNA from Trayvon on the gun.

        Someone else also pointed out that for Trayvon to be able to hit someone 25-30 times in that short amount of time, he’d need to fight like Muhammad Ali. And it was Zimmerman who was the MMA fighter.

        There was no proof that Zimmerman was under Trayvon.

        So yeah make comments about lefties or whatever – but do some research and don’t you dare besmirch Trayvon Martin’s name.

        In relation to the article–yes it’s important to look past borders as writers…and that’s all I’ll say.

        • >>So yeah make comments about lefties or whatever – but do some research and don’t you dare besmirch Trayvon Martin’s name.

          Amos, lefties are really big on freedom of speech – except when you disagree with them.

  6. I felt a bit mean after posting my comment; it’s too easy to pile on to somebody who is clearly (I hope) a young writer. This article is clearly well-meaning, and wanting to ask the right questions; but there’s an obliviousness in it that is difficult to read with patience, quite aside from howlers like saying Brecht was reacting against Communism, or any other of the impossibly confused comments about Lear, or naturalism or whatever. Yes, as artists we all have to think hard about the relationship of our work to the world we live in, and it’s not the Forest of Arden. It shouldn’t take a single terrible event to make that obvious.

  7. >>As the token Australian, people take care to explain the situation to me. <<

    Ask the nice people at the "elite writers' colony" to teach you how to avoid dangling participles.

  8. There is also a question of taste. If this writer was really compelled to rethink the role of the artist after hearing of Zimmerman’s acquittal, that is all very fine and good. But then to use that event as the “hook” to attract readers to an article about an artist’s existential crisis – well, it can’t help but read as bourgeois and a diminishment of what is for most of us a truly traumatic event.

    • “Conversations revolve around how nice it is to be in a place where nobody judges you for being an artist.”

      That artistic cringing, and the quick jump from the Zimmerman / Martin news report to artistic crisis is a concern, and it worried Brecht too. The ceaseless reproduction of images is the spectacle of bad traditional theatre which Brecht bemoaned – passively viewing events which become reality only when they’re reported as news – and all you can do is look on while bodies are being abused, injured, mutilated and killed. That’s where the domain of the dramatic resides today, should elite writers wish for a more political artistic engagement: in the bad traditional theatre of violence as media spectacle, both real and fictive. That was Brecht’s struggle with his epic-theatrical devices – coming up with unthinkable possibilities – and the struggle continues.

  9. I think this piece, while well meaning perhaps, has lost credibility from the start, in its ‘summary’ of the Zimmerman case. The author may want to investigate for herself the facts of the case. This would in turn lead to a different, and perhaps less self-serving narrative. This piece will remain at the level of teenage diary recordings of summer camp angst (who kissed who? who’s my best friend today? what is the point of it all?) because the author (I think innocently and misguidedly, but that’s not the point), is completely averse to any concept of exploring truth that does not fit in with her elite, arty world.

    • Yeah, I like how being one of the self-selected observers and critiquers of society does not obligate you to know any actual facts about the topics you spout off about. But this infantile, navel-gazing essay was never about Trayvon Martin, I suppose. It was always about Ms Maling’s favorite and sole topic, herself.

      • Very well put. This is typical nonsense from someone who seems to want to convince us of her superior morality in a seemingly desperate attempt to hide that she doesn’t have the decency to get her facts straight. Given the evidence presented at trial and the subsequent acquittal it is possible is piece may constitute libel. As such I am going to forward this link to the Zimmerman legal team in case they may wish to claim damages against the author.

        • You clearly didn’t watch the trial or are so biased that despite much evidence that contradicted the verdict, you argue that it was just.

          And go ahead, send it to O’Mara and West–I’m sure they’ll care since special prosecutor Angela Corey called Zimmerman a murderer and Bernie de la Rionda called him lucky. Corey also called Trayvon prey and de la Rionda called him a victim.

          http://edition.cnn.com/video/?/video/crime/2013/07/15/intv-politan-zimmerman-prosecutors-preview.hln

        • Ian,
          Do you see any irony in accusing someone of “wanting to convince us of her superior morality”?

          I feel your very comment is designed specifically to position yourself as “superior”.

          You then follow on to state that the author is “Seemingly desperate” “to hide that she doesnt have the decency to get her facts straight”

          Which is hilarious in light of your later accusation that this piece constitutes libel…..

          You clearly have no real understanding of law, no interest in reading beyond the most shallow interpretation of a piece, no desire to discuss outside of criticism, no desire to offer any author the benefit of the doubt and a seemingly overpowering urge to feel superior to those you communicate with.

          All of these are very appealing character traits.

  10. “I’m at an elite writers’ colony on the east coast of the United States.”

    Washing the dishes, I presume….

  11. There’s protests happening throughout the country(US).Perhaps rather than worry about what kind of ART you will produce,you could bundle all those ‘elite’ artists into the back of a van and head to one of the protests and represent for anti-racist,justice seekers everywhere?By the way,what has happened to Overland over the last few weeks?Dull articles on the bloody Dalai Lama(a true ‘democrat’ if ever there was one) and Buddhism.An article on whaling which presents the Australian government and the so-called ‘international community’ as ‘saviours’.Umm,the Australian state has done a great job of saving all the animals that inhabit this continet eh?What is the ‘international community’?Can it be defined?I doubt it.

  12. No one posting here is Treyvon Martin. Most of the above is far from what Treyvon has come to represent. Condemning the writer simply because she used the word elite, or branding her as young (as if that was a crime) is no different to what Zimmerman did by identifying the colour of the skin and the hoodie and choosing to shoot first and not ask questions.

    You all are George Zimmerman.

  13. Oh, Overland online. I try to love you, but you and non-POC ‘race blogs’ have not been faring well lately.

  14. So here is my concern:

    We have an artist writing a piece, deliberately (in my opinion) attempting to highlight the vacuousness of artistry in general (Specifically with respect to ‘retreats’) and the risk of disengagement from the real world.

    To do this, she used a recent (highly politicised and highly provocative) world event.

    We then have a whole bunch of other artists going:

    “Look how vacuuous and disengaged this artist is, isnt she silly? We are clearly much more engaged than her! In fact, we are so clearly engaged and aware of the real world that we dont need to discuss the topic raised, we instead need to insult the person raising it! Hoorah!”

    I would invite those commenting to consider their own comments objectively as if written by another.

    The accusations made could equally be levelled directly at you for the pretentious nature of the comments made and your deliberate (if poorly masked) attempts to ‘distance’ yourself from the issues raised in the article.

    As an interesting side-note, since this is the internet, my own accusation above can also be equally levelled at myself, forming a recursive comment loop.

  15. Ah the self righteous left. Itis good they huddle in colonies so at least we know where they are…(aside from up themselves).

  16. I think that those who are being critical of this article have slightly missed the point, and that the author herself is actually agreeing with many of their sentiments in her writing. She is highlighting her current context at this ‘elitist writer’s colony’ to juxtapose this against the injustices of the outside world. To say, ‘how can both these worlds exist?’ I think. Presumptions are dangerous things and to assume that someone attending an elitist writer’s colony is, in themselves, an elitist is illogical, given that writers are accepted based on the merit of their work, rather than any left, political or class persuasions. I think the author prefaced this piece by describing her given context only to offer relevance to her reaction and the reaction of those around her. It is not one of “After I heard about Trayvon Martin I had an epiphany: injustice exists in this world!”, as Brad has suggested on this thread, but one of ‘injustice continues to exist in this world and how, why and what should we be creating in the face of it?’. Aren’t dangerous presumptions what killed Trayvon Martin and isn’t that all that people are airing here? Speculations on the author’s class or detached empathy? It seems to me that taking tragedies like this and applying them to your own context is inevitable, and it is in this way that the author is affected by the acquittal of Zimmerman, agreeing with many of you that her place at said ‘elitist writer’s colony’ is made superficial and meaningless in many ways as it is difficult to know what place art can have in a world that holds realities such as this. I think the critics of this piece have really missed the point, or in their criticism are simply agreeing with the agenda of the article by Miss. Maling.

    • There’s plenty of excellent commentary on this case. Gary Younge’s very angry piece, for instance, which is now reinstated on the Guardian. Using an event like this for confessions of white privilege guilt can get up people’s noses – understandably, I think – as it does nothing except highlight that very white privilege, shifting the focus from the actual injustice to a kind of examination that merely looks, whatever the author’s intention, like self-agggrandisement. I suspect this is mainly why people are cross.

      I don’t see any point in insulting Caitlin Maling, or speculating on her motives. At most she’s guilty of writing an ordinary article, which will at once satisfy those who think art is an elitist and self-absorbed activity that’s removed from the world, and upset those who think it’s more than that: as someone said above, it reads like a teen’s confessions of summer camp.

      In the end, my major problem is that she appears to have only the shallowest knowledge of the “artistry” she claims to embrace or critique. It’s as if Maling breathlessly discovered Shakespeare or Brecht or Stanislavky on Wikipedia. It might be ignorance, or it might just be bad writing. If you want to make art seriously and you want it to matter in the world, surely a basic first step is to have more than a superficial understanding of art itself? Maybe this is no more than being young; not a problem in itself, of course. I know lots of self-aware and very capable young artists. And Rimbaud had written all his poetry by the time he was 19.

  17. Self-absorption, thy name is fakery. Elite artists are not the problem: it’s the poseurs. There’s nothing wrong with an elite writers’ colony, until writers who are not elite turn up and pretend they are. Then everyone’s nose is out of joint, including the wait staff who catch the brunt at dinnertime.

    Barry Humphries has been pillorying such for decades. Raymond Chandler also pinned them to the wall:

    “It was the kind of room where people sit with their feet in their laps and drank absinthe through lumps of sugar and talk in high affected voices, and sometimes just squeak. It was a room where anything could happen except work.”