Spotlight: Myron M. Beasley

To pick up the phone out of nowhere and have a conversation with Myron M.Beasley feels a little bit like discovering an inexplicably unopened letter from a stranger at the bottom of a drawer in the desk that you don’t often use; a letter from someone you’ve never met, but to whom you nonetheless feel an immediate linkage as the ideas and impressions pour out from the page. In this imaginary instance, there is the sense of surprise and pleasure with the expressive generosity of an unfamiliar person. The fact that the discovered letter had been misplaced, or lost, or set aside with good intentions, but ultimately left unread for years, fills the reader with remorse that such a communication – spilling with such luminous insights, each of which seems to be the door to a dozen more conversations which might have been – remained sealed  so long.

To have the privilege of interacting regularly with the resident alumni of Hewnoaks, as I do, is to enter some benevolent secret society, where a person is certain to encounter someone whom you wish you had known long before, someone doing things you never thought of but now want to think about very much.  Inside are persons scarred from the great battle with uncertainty and self-doubt across whatever number of years of strain and effort, and whose scars are by nature stern and becoming. (Please see “…never cease warring…” in the footnote below.)

Which is to say that Myron has just that unusual and hard-to-find quality of being ready to veer, immediately upon entering a conversation, directly towards whatever is the most interesting and compelling idea or notion at hand, zipping past formalities and uncertainties – even with a stranger.

Myron Beasley is difficult to describe as an artist and practitioner.  He himself is quick to point out that identity is so much a “fluid terrain” as to be effectively unknowable, ungraspable. It certainly feels that way in his case. Myron is an academic, a curator, a performance artist, a cultural critic, and ethnographer, a revisionist gastronomer, a writer, an anthropologist, and surely a dozen other things which our brief conversation simply was not able to smoke out from the underbrush.  He is currently Associate Professor in the areas of American Studies and Gender and Sexuality Studies at Bates College. He has conducted fieldwork in Morocco, Brazil, and Haiti.  Myron was also a writing resident at Hewnoaks during the 2017 and 2018 summer sessions.

Critical Scholarship

When I asked him about his recent work, Myron described an ongoing effort to find alternative ways of representing research and scholarship outside of the conventional intellectual frameworks. “I don’t want to just write to people in the academy, in that kind of archaic academic language, but try to ask: what are the other ways for me to publish my work and communicate in different ways to different people in order to articulate the findings of my research?” In this regard, Myron told me that he thinks artists have a special capacity to talk about their work in a way that is more engaging, and ultimately more effective, then academics typically do. For all his fluency in the metaphors and theoretical scaffolds of specialized discourse, Myron works hard to translate his teaching and research into direct, uncoded expressions which would be generally accessible to anyone with an interest in the topic at hand.

One of these topics is necropolitics, a branch of cultural studies pioneered by Achille Mbembe in his book On the Postcolony, concerned with biological sovereignty and how political power shapes how people must live and, in particular, die.  Myron was preparing to write a long work on necropolitics when he arrived for his first residency at Hewnoaks. I asked him about how that experience went.

The Creative Process

Before answering that question, Myron detoured to James Baldwin. What a happy detour it is. He mentioned that some of his strongest associations with Hewnoaks point to Baldwin’s 1962 essay entitled “The Creative Process”, which makes explicit and repeated linkages between solitude and artistic practice, arguing convincingly that the two are largely inseparable. He talked about the artist’s need to be away from the regular world, which encourages safety and fullness and busyness, in order to conduct personal experiments of the highest order in a sort of private laboratory, apart from regular concerns.

Myron views the work of an artist, in part, to be a critique of the world we all inhabit. In order to make this world more inhabitable, the artist must depart from it temporarily and find a place to “dwell” as the critique takes form. Whichever form. “An artist needs to be away in isolation in order to produce the work they need to produce. That’s what Hewnoaks was for me… Going there, and the solitude, was really important to me – vital for me, actually – the first time I went and I had a moment to pause and breathe… that I was just there to write and scatter my papers on the floor and desk… it was an amazing moment.”

Hewnoaks and the University

Myron and I spoke a little bit about the possibility of linking Hewnoaks with academic programs and courses like the ones he teaches. Myron suggested that a space like Hewnoaks would be of value to both students and faculty trying to work on problems that require special concentration, or special attention to issues and impressions not readily encountered in the conventional campus environment. We talked a little bit about how Hewnoaks might make a good setting for short intensive courses or sabbaticals for researchers wrestling with especially demanding problems. As a practitioner across many disciplines, both creative and scientific, Myron encouraged Hewnoaks to imagine its constituency as a broad creative community found in fields far beyond studio art practice alone.

Vulnerability and Opportunity

Circling back around to the questions of isolation and focus, emptiness and fullness, Myron spoke about how he believes unprescribed space and time relate to artistic productivity. He said that an artist needs to confront uncertainty and emptiness in order to answer certain types of questions.

“The reflexivity is a piece in our lives that many people avoid, many cannot get to a space – both mentally and physically – to do that kind of work…and to me that’s where real art, real activity, real activism take place… Where artists can make themselves vulnerable enough to engage with the major issues which afflict them – and what I mean by affliction is: issues that they have been pondering, the larger political ideas that move them. They have to sort of strategize and consider what they are able to do to attend to those – but you have to be in that space. Artists have to be in this open space where they can interrogate the personal and make themselves vulnerable, in order to move.”

Vulnerability as prerequisite for strength, unknowing for certainty, stillness for motion; lovely business! Myron’s quick, relaxed wit and abundant insights exemplify what seems so valuable about Hewnoaks: a place where similar and latent qualities in the rest of us might be invited to emerge.

Footnote to an Interview

It goes without saying that, as soon as I put down the phone at the end of the interview, I lurched for my keyboard to find the essay which Myron mentioned…James Baldwin’s “The Creative Process” commissioned by President Kennedy and published by the Ridge Press in 1962. A few passages are given below to demonstrate how uncanny this citation was.

“Perhaps the primary distinction of the artist is that he must actively cultivate that state which most men, necessarily, must avoid; the state of being alone.”

“The state of being alone is not meant to bring to mind merely a rustic musing besides some silver lake. The aloneness of which I speak is much more like the aloneness of birth or death. It is like the fearless alone that one sees in the eyes of someone who is suffering, whom we cannot help.”

“The dangers of being an American artist are not greater than those of being an artist anywhere else in the world, but they are very particular. These dangers are produced by our history. They rest on the fact that in order to conquer this continent, the particular aloneness of which I speak – the aloneness in which one discovers that life is tragic, and therefore unutterably beautiful – could not be permitted.”

“Most of us are not compelled to linger with the knowledge of our aloneness, for it is a knowledge that can paralyze all action in this world.”

“The artist is distinguished from all other responsible actors in society – the politicians, legislators, educators, and scientists – by the fact that he is his own test tube, his own laboratory, working according to very rigorous rules, however unstated these may be….”

“The human beings whom we respect the most, after all – and sometimes fear the most – are those who are most deeply involved in this delicate and strenuous effort, for they have the unshakable authority that comes only from having looked on and endured and survived the worst.”

“The artist cannot and must not take anything for granted, but must drive to the heart of every answer and expose the question the answer hides.”

“I am really trying to make clear the nature of the artist’s responsibility to his society. The peculiar nature of this responsibility is that he must never cease warring with it, for its own sake and for his own. For the truth, in spite of appearances and all our hopes, is that everything is always changing and the measure of our maturity as nations and as men is how well prepared we are to meet these changes, and further, to use them for our health.”

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