Gil Scott-Heron–Iconography

Objects

This semester, I participated in a gallery show organized by Dr. Marin Sullivan entitled “Objects and Objecthood: Material Encounters Across Campus,” featuring submissions from Keene State faculty that represented a dimension of our pedagogical aims and research interests. For my part, I displayed some 12″ record covers–all by Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson, whose work I have taught this semester in my course on Hip Hop Lit.

Tracing the inheritance of the Black Arts Movement in contemporary multiethnic American poetry necessitates a consideration of literary institutions and publication history. Especially with respect to music, the aesthetic impact of albums as a widely available, popular artistic commodity is often underestimated. My thinking about material culture and the Black Arts Movement–aspects of that literary movement like collective spaces, publishing houses, and collaborations with musicians and visual artists–is deeply indebted to Dr. Howard Rambsy’s book The Black Arts Enterprise, which is a key text in the current reassessment of the Black Arts era.

The following is the wall text I contributed to the exhibit:

  • Gil Scott-Heron. Small Talk at 125th and Lenox (1970). Flying Dutchman.
  • —. The Mind of Gil Scott-Heron: A Collection of Poetry and Music (1978). Arista.
  • Gil Scott-Heron & Brian Jackson. Winter in America (1974). Strata-East.
  • —. Midnight Band: The First Minute of a New Day (1975). Arista.
  • —. From South Africa to South Carolina (1975). Arista.

“words are important for the mind / the / notes are for the soul.”

—Gil Scott-Heron, from “plastic pattern people”

Now more than forty-five years and fifteen studio albums since he originally recorded the poem, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” Gil Scott-Heron’s influence has registered more with fans of hip-hop than with literary critics. However, understanding Scott-Heron within a tradition of black writers affords a fuller appreciation of his distinctive blend of humor, music, and politics, too often dismissed as street-poetry or proto-rap.

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Gil Scott-Heron’s fluency in residual oral forms—the root of African American literature—exemplifies the ethos of the Black Arts Movement, which was part of the Black Power struggle in the mid-1960s. As poet and critic Larry Neal famously urged: “the poet must become a performer, the way James Brown is a performer—loud, gaudy and racy. … He must learn to embellish the context in which the work is executed … [f]or the context of the work is as important as the work itself.”

While Scott-Heron’s recorded performances prove his mastery of vernacular traditions, his albums also reveal a fiercely experimental literary undercurrent. I use Scott-Heron’s books (a memoir, two novels, and three volumes of poetry), film (Black Wax), and recordings to underscore how multimedia forms broaden the literary audience by blurring the lines between art and entertainment—between poetry and popular music.

Considered as artifacts, these records epitomize the reciprocity of words, images, and sound. On the cover of his earliest album, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox (1970), Scott-Heron prominently wears the badge “A New Black Poet.” The classic, independently produced Winter in America (1974) features original artwork by Eugene Coles and Peggy Harris. The First Minute of a New Day (1975) and From South Africa to South Carolina (1975) use illustrations of a gorilla (guerrilla?) to build thematic and symbolic continuity.

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Significantly, his album, The Mind of Gil Scott-Heron: A Collection of Poetry and Music (1978), features a twenty-four-page book of writings and photographs taken by John Ford. In the introductory note, Scott-Heron reflects on his uneasy relationship with generic boundaries:

I am frequently asked which is my preference—music or poetry and prose writing. Different ideas call for different vehicles and the artist who limits himself or herself to one medium has lost a valuable opportunity for further growth. I generally use as my response and reference point to these questions the examples of Paul Robeson and Langston Hughes, men who used a range of artistic media—song, poetry, acting and oration—to convey in a variety of ways, contemporary social ideas and political circumstance. These ideas may have been common to most people on an individual level, but when placed in a creative context by the artist they dramatize, politicize and promote a group level of conscience and awareness.

Expanding traditional ideas about what poetry is and where it exists enriches the study of language and literature. Scott-Heron’s invocation of Hughes and Robeson, for instance, demonstrates that placing words and music on a single continuum has profound political implications. The work of Black Arts writers like Scott-Heron demands that our analyses take more than syntax and symbolism into consideration. We must also attend to the visual and aural dimensions of prosody and poetics, the political context of performance. From the page to the stage, Scott-Heron’s virtuoso style  exemplify Larry Neal’s concept of the black artist as “a kind of priest, a black magician, working juju with the word on the world.”

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Curating Identity

I recently participated in an exhibit for the campus art museum called, Intersection: Identity, Art, and Culture. Faculty from across the college were invited to select works from the permanent collection and write a curatorial statement about the relevance of the objects to their teaching. Since my current American Studies course is a survey of American popular culture from 1830, I tried to articulate a notion of style as a performance of countercultural resistance.

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My interdisciplinary courses in English and American Studies emphasize artistic collaborations that cross and claim borders. At the intersection of word, image, and sound, such courses pursue a multimedia approach to American icons and iconography.

Once, when asked “what is jazz?” Louis Armstrong replied that “if you have ask, you’ll never know.” Armstrong’s evasion emphasizes the importance not of the music itself, but the process of its making. He characterizes jazz as a practice, not a theory—a style that may exceed language. I am intrigued by the everyday performance of identity. American art is a kind of record of this constant self-creation. It depicts the often uneasy negotiation of individuality and social context. These photographs by Andy Warhol capture candid, intimate moments in which art textures and transforms the ongoing process of making and remaking oneself.

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Unidentified Men, Andy Warhol

Warhol was an acute observer of popular culture, and his work represents the profound contradictions of American entertainment. It can be politically charged and easily commodified, simultaneously liberating and oppressive. Think, for instance, of Warhol’s portraits of Mao Zedong. My courses highlight multimedia experiments like Warhol’s collaboration with the Velvet Underground or his avant-garde films, which epitomize the aesthetic and political changes of the1960s and 70s.

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Mao, Andy Warhol (not shown in exhibit)

At the crossroads of avant-garde aesthetics and popular culture, Warhol fashioned himself as an American original. He reveled in celebrity, insisting there was no deeper significance to his art. “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol,” he explained, “just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.”

Often, studying popular culture means looking for what isn’t there or listening for what isn’t said. Convincing performances depend as much on details withheld from audiences as on those revealed. As a form of self-expression, style is a composite text: a set of linked choices, difficult to identify in any single detail and yet omnipresent. Likewise, photorealism worries the line between surface and depth. By painting photographic images, these artists ironize the relationship between the documentary and expressive functions of art. Technique becomes style. The medium is the message.

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Night Times Square, Noel Mahaffey

The content also expresses competing, sometimes contradictory impulses through juxtaposition. In Night Times Square by Noel Mahaffey, a darkly gleaming van anchors the image, obstructing the view of patrons seeking Chinese food, a topless dance, or an Orange Julius, all advertised in the same glaring neon. Likewise, Charles Bell presents childhood treats like ice cream and gum-balls alongside ads for more advanced vices like cigarettes and malt liquor in Little Italy.

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Little Italy, Charles Bell

In Tom Blackwell’s 451, the glass of the shop window reflects the streetscape. The artist’s perspective within the painting mirrors the viewer’s—looking at a surface that appears both as a transparent window and a reflection of the world outside the frame. These paintings simultaneously efface and affirm individuality. The authentic and the imitation are interchangable–humbug becomes legitimate art. Photorealist–or hyper-realist–art was initially dismissed by some as a paint-by-numbers exercise, but it represents a profound challenge the traditional role of the artist in the age of mechanical reproduction.

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451, Tom Blackwell

City Scene 1 by Lester Johnson uses a rather different technique, but arrives at similar questions about style and substance. Johnson’s inversion of high and low cultural references evokes popular culture’s democratizing aesthetic influence. Leonardo Da Vinci is reduced to a t-shirt design, while popular fashion like tight-fitting shirts, bell-bottom jeans, and high-heeled shoes are elevated to meaningful symbols worthy of high-art portraiture. Even though the figures avoid the viewer’s gaze—the man smokes listlessly, the women turn their faces upward and away—their careful gestures convey a self-conscious performance of refusal.

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City Scene 1, Lester Johnson

Such a posture illustrates the ambiguity of popular forms. The superficial pretense of popular culture provides an essential cover for the sometimes unconscious, often resonant ironies. These contradictions and reversals are constantly replayed in national spectacle and everyday entertainment. From folk life and early print culture to stage traditions like minstrelsy and vaudeville to Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley, my courses employ concepts, methods, and theories from a variety of literary, historical, and cultural sources to elucidate and critique the contours and dimensions of American style.

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