The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Thursday, December 1, 2022


At PEN America, a complicated centennial for free speech
Guests during a centenary celebration for PEN America at the New-York Historical Society in New York on Sept. 12, 2022. Literary luminaries gathered in Manhattan to celebrate the centenary of PEN America, at a moment that many see support for free speech eroding across the political spectrum. Timothy O'Connell/The New York Times.

by Jennifer Schuessler



NEW YORK, NY.- At a sold-out event Monday in New York City celebrating the centenary of the free expression group PEN America, there were as many literary luminaries in the audience as there were onstage.

Before intermission, Margaret Atwood, dressed in metallic sneakers and a bright pink shirt, had engaged in some salty, friendly needling of Dave Eggers over whose dystopian novels were more prescient. At the break, Tom Stoppard and Neil Gaiman were spotted in a floppy-haired tête-à-tête, while Robert Caro and Paul Auster passed nearby.

But over the three-hour event at the New-York Historical Society, talk kept circling back to a man who wasn’t there.

Soon after taking the stage, Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie brought up the brutal attack on Salman Rushdie, who was stabbed onstage last month at a literary event in upstate New York.

“After the attack on Salman Rushdie, I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” she said, going on to imagine “the brutal and barbaric intimacy of someone standing inches from you and forcefully plunging a knife into your flesh,” simply “because you wrote.”

Novelist and playwright Ayad Akhtar, the president of PEN America, was supposed to have interviewed Rushdie onstage about the 1989 fatwa in response to his novel “The Satanic Verses.”

Instead, he delivered a tribute to his friend, and recalled his furtive, almost guilty reading of a novel everyone in his conservative Muslim American community in Milwaukee, Akhtar said, regarded as blasphemy deserving of punishment.

“It was my first encounter with the sheer force of literature, and the trouble it could get me into,” he said.

The centenary falls at a complicated moment for PEN America, and the increasingly embattled principle of free speech it defends. The group is enjoying a rising profile, as it has moved beyond its traditional focus on literary writers to address a wide variety of new threats to open discourse, including online harassment, misinformation and digital surveillance.

Long known for international activism, it has also emerged as a leading voice on threats to free expression in the United States, issuing a series of widely cited recent reports on the spread of educational gag orders — a term it coined to describe efforts by Republican-dominated state legislatures to restrict teaching on race and gender.

But Suzanne Nossel, the group’s CEO since 2013, also lamented what she said was the erosion of free speech as a cultural value — including among its traditional defenders on the left (and in the publishing industry, where some employees have organized pressure campaigns to drop books by conservatives).

“We’re at a dangerous precipice,” Nossel said in an interview. “Young people have been alienated from the idea of free speech, and see it as a smoke screen for hatred and bigotry. At the same time, there are those who may call themselves standard-bearers for free speech, but if you look at what they’re doing, they’re banning books, gagging curriculum, eviscerating free speech in our schools and universities.”

The attack on Rushdie, she said, was “a jolting reminder of why we do what we do, and how pervasive the threats are,” she said. “This is a very personal catalyst to step it up.”

The attempted public assassination of a novelist in America may have scarcely been imagined at the group’s founding in 1922, which is documented in an exhibition on view at the historical society through Oct. 9. (From Wednesday through Sunday, it will be joined by a flashier display, “Speech Itself,” a large light-projection by artist Jenny Holzer that will splash quotes from more than 60 authors across three buildings at Rockefeller Center each evening from 8 to 10.)

The first meeting of the PEN Club (as the group was originally called) took place at the Coffee House Club in Manhattan, with some 40 original members including Willa Cather, Eugene O’Neill and Robert Frost.

From the beginning, it took an international approach, in keeping with the spirit of PEN International, the parent group formed in 1921. In 1939, PEN America organized an emergency congress in New York in response to rising fascism in Europe. During the war, it raised money to help impoverished writers in Europe.

The exhibition also highlights its advocacy for imperiled writers around the world, like environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa (who was executed by the Nigerian government in 1995) and Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, who died in 2017.




And it doesn’t gloss over upheavals in its own ranks, including the 2015 protest about the group’s award for “freedom of expression courage” to the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which some PEN members saw as rewarding what they considered racist and Islamophobic cartoons.

Today’s organization, Nossel said, is “not your grandfather’s PEN,” which long had what she called a “crusty-fusty reputation,” deserved or not. For one thing, it’s bigger, with a membership of more than 7,000 (up from 3,500 in 2012), and a staff of more than 70. (Under Nossel, the budget has grown to $15 million, up from $2.3 million.)

It has also worked to diversify, while also increasingly emphasizing that free speech is not just a matter of defending the right to speak, but dismantling the barriers that prevent marginalized people from being heard.

“We are not free speech absolutists,” Nossel said. “We take what I think is an enlightened approach,” attuned to the interplay of “competing values.”

The onstage discussion reflected those tensions, as well as less savory aspects of PEN America’s history. Novelist Jennifer Finney Boylan, her voice vibrating with emotion, read a lacerating 1987 letter from Larry Kramer to Susan Sontag, then president, blasting the group’s “intolerable attitude toward anything gay,” and its failure to “say Boo about AIDS.”

“Thanks, Larry!” Boylan, who is transgender, said, to loud applause. “I hope it’s fair to say that all these years later, PEN does a better job” defending LGBTQ writers, whom she described as “the most threatened in this country.”

During an audience Q&A, Boylan said she was of two minds about the fraught question of who gets to tell what stories. On the one hand, she said, PEN stands for artistic freedom. But on the other, she said, trans stories need trans writers.

“My argument is not about censorship,” she said. “My argument is that we can tell our own stories better.”

Adichie said that, as a person from a continent that was often misrepresented, she largely agreed. But Nossel brought up the controversy over “American Dirt,” Jeanine Cummins’ novel about Mexican migrants, which was embraced by some Mexican and Mexican American writers, but assailed by others as white “trauma porn.”

It’s easy to say work should be good, she said. “But who decides?”

Akhtar took a blunter line, decrying the rise of so-called sensitivity readers, whom publishers hire to flag potentially offensive depictions relating to race, ethnicity, gender, religion and other subjects. “If there had been sensitivity readers early in my career, I wouldn’t have a career,” he said.

“It’s tricky,” he said. “I joke, I feel like we are potentially entering an era of socialist realism without the genocide.”

And he again brought up Rushdie, whose absolutist, full-throated stance on free speech is looked at askance by many in literary circles.

“I can’t tell you how many times people in New York have said, ‘Don’t get too close to Salman, because you’ll lose credibility,’” Akhtar said.

At a reception after the event, there were canapés, “Centenary Sidecars” and jokes about the verbosity of writers.

Gaiman stood chatting with cartoonist Art Spiegelman. “Art was just saying, ‘That wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be!’” he said.

Atwood, between posing for photographs with admirers, said PEN was “relevant now.”

“When things are going fine, people say, ‘Free speech, yeah yeah,’” she said. “It gets boring. But in an age of censorship and persecution, it matters again.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.










Today's News

September 15, 2022

Getty Museum announces group of acquisitions

'Taking Stock. Gurlitt in Review' opens at the Kunstmuseum Bern

Rijksmuseum reveals groundbreaking discoveries on Vermeer's painting The Milkmaid

Jean-Luc Godard, daring director who shaped the French New Wave, dies at 91

Hauser & Wirth presents a survey of foundational works by pioneering American artist Lorna Simpson

Paul Evans mid-century modern sideboard and rare Chinese scroll take the lead at Roland Auctions

Gagosian opens an exhibition of paintings, sculptures, and works on paper by Cy Twombly,

Persons Projects opens a solo exhibition of works by Niina Vatanen

Skarstedt opens an exhibition of works by Eric Fischl

Almine Rech New York opens an exhibition of tapestries by Le Corbusier

Artuner opens a solo exhibition of new paintings by Pia Krajewski

Exhibition shows various engagements with waste as the repressed remains of our civilization

At PEN America, a complicated centennial for free speech

William Klein, who photographed the energy of city life, dies at 96

Collector pays $2+ million for Cal. Gold Rush 62-pound "Johnny Carson" gold bar

Kandis Williams: the inaugural volume in the Clarion series presented by David Zwirner and 52 Walker

Louisiana Art & Science Museum opens Pinpointing the Stars

Shin Gallery presents 'Gerda Wegener & Lili Elbe: The Powering of Portraiture'

The Oswaldo Vigas Foundation announces the launch of the artist's online catalogue raisonné

Ikon presents artist and musician Mayunkiki in his first solo exhibition in the UK

National Gallery announces 40th Anniversary Program

Paul P. opens an exhibition at Maureen Paley

New exhibition reveals the extraordinary emergence of South Korea into pop-culture powerhouse

Qualities To Look For When Buying Sex Toys

How To Make Your App Stand Out from All of The Rest?

Why It Is Important to Choose the Best Remote Work

The detailed guide on how to be an illustrator

What steps should be taken when a cardiac arrest occurs, and how can you take them?

Why Singaporean Women Are Drawn To Yoga Orchard?

How To Hide & Unhide Chat In GB WhatsApp?




Museums, Exhibits, Artists, Milestones, Digital Art, Architecture, Photography,
Photographers, Special Photos, Special Reports, Featured Stories, Auctions, Art Fairs,
Anecdotes, Art Quiz, Education, Mythology, 3D Images, Last Week, .

 



Founder:
Ignacio Villarreal
(1941 - 2019)
Editor & Publisher: Jose Villarreal
Art Director: Juan José Sepúlveda Ramírez

Royalville Communications, Inc
produces:

ignaciovillarreal.org juncodelavega.com facundocabral-elfinal.org
Founder's Site. Hommage
to a Mexican poet.
Hommage
       

The First Art Newspaper on the Net. The Best Versions Of Ave Maria Song Junco de la Vega Site Ignacio Villarreal Site
Tell a Friend
Dear User, please complete the form below in order to recommend the Artdaily newsletter to someone you know.
Please complete all fields marked *.
Sending Mail
Sending Successful