Finding several music websites unwilling to publish his work, Josh Hall recently posted an essay to his blog about William Bennett, the Cut Hands project, and Bennett’s by now well-known affinity for taboo subjects and for far-right politics and imagery (meaning, in this case, fascism).
Response to the essay has been about as varied as you could expect. Some reactions are incredulous or condescending (“Of course William Bennett is making offensive art! Duh!”), others have been more glowing (“thanks for finally bringing this up!). I’m sympathetic to the questions that Hall raises, though I think he muddles his message with the accusations he levels against Blackest Ever Black and Tony Wakeford. Whether or not it sits well with you, Bennett’s already addressed his use of fascist imagery and language on his blog. He might have been an idiot, but as Hall acknowledges, it’s unlikely that he was ever pro-Nazi.
The bits in the article about colonialism, racism, misogyny, and the appropriation of foreign cultures are much stronger, and the accusation that Bennett is entirely responsible for the Extreme Music from Africa compilation is way more interesting than any of his juvenile fascist obsessions ever were.
I’ve read several negative reactions to the article that bring up artist’s rights or censorship—the idea being that Hall is putting unfair ethical expectations on Bennett’s music by criticizing his use of African art. After all, virtually everyone borrows ideas from other cultures these days. That can’t be as insidious as Hall suggests it is, right?
But the issue at hand, as best as I can tell, is the quality of Bennett’s work, not whether or not he should be allowed to produce it, or whether or not an artist can borrow ideas from another culture without somehow trivializing it. Hall simply argues that Bennett produces poor art, and that part of what makes it so poor is its obliviousness . He then goes on to point out that shockingly few writers have written about the political and philosophical particulars of that art.
It seems to me that Hall finds the lack of discussion surrounding Bennett’s music just as troubling as the music itself (though I think the music isn’t nearly so interesting as that; it’s how Bennett dresses his records that catches my attention). How could anyone, for instance, pass up the opportunity to press an interviewee who thinks “Buchenwald is just a name?” And why is it that we are forgiving of confrontational artists who make radical statements, but so indignant toward audiences who are confrontational or skeptical in return? Is art so sacrosanct that we can’t question it, even when it offends us or stirs some doubt in the back of our minds? Is it that we think there is only one right way to read Bennett’s work?
Some of the issues Hall raises are enough to make me question what Bennett is up to, and that is all he needs to do. That’s what good journalism is supposed to be about. It’s with that in mind that I recommend reading Hall’s essay, whether you find that his analysis is accurate in the end or not.