Monday, September 3, 2012

An Envy Confessed

This is a theme I'm likely to return to again and again, that theme being ugliness and beauty and what those things mean for a theologically trained artist. I think an awful lot of emphasis is placed on "beauty" without giving "ugliness" its due.

But I want to start first with a note I found in my back pocket notebook. As I move toward making performances that are not necessarily for a theater setting, that is, what is generally referred to broadly as performance art or live art, I am aware that my themes and aesthetics are rather different from what you might see at some performance art festivals. I won't cover all of this one post, but I want to start with this bit I wrote at some point (I don't recall when) in my back pocket notebook:

It occurs to me that what I admire---or envy or am just fascinated by---in the extreme performance artists is their sense of "nothing to lose." They get naked, pull things out of usually unseen orifices, they are obscene and vulgar---shouting in a Flannery O'Connor way---because they don't have anyone they care about offending. No day job to question their public nudity, no family to embarrass. They may have those things, but they count them as nothing to lose. Or so it seems to me. And so . . . I envy that. I always feel like I have something to lose 

To comment on that notebook scribble, I would go one step further. I think I lack the anger that seems to propel a lot of this "Flannery O'Connor shouting." I say that and then I remember that I do have moments of anger, frequently even. But then I'm reminded, in this past Sunday's lectionary, in fact, that "your anger does not produce God’s righteousness." [James 1:20.] Then again, I'm reminded that the history of live art includes a lot of anger about women artists being under-represented in major galleries. Did that anger bring about any kind of righteousness or (to use a closely related, sometimes interchangeable word) justice? Did the Gorilla Girls do anything more than draw attention to the problem or did they actually bring about more positive change for women artists?

Questions. My main point tonight is that I have ideas for performance installations that owe some debt to the the feminist impulse that popularized live art, but the pieces that I'm planning for next year are so different in intention. Is anger an actual component of performance art, without which, performance art becomes something else?

Okay, I don't believe that. Performance/live art is broadly defined a bit on purpose, and that broad definition will include these things I intend to accomplish in the next year. But as I explore my own impulse toward this expression, I look to other practitioners and see so much of what they do is ugly in a surface appearance sort of way. As I've been thinking about that history (and current practice) in much performance art, I've also been wondering about my own attraction to it. Because it does "sound" like shouting to me, shouting from people who are not being heard, who feel they are dealing with people who are metaphorically hard of hearing.

So as I move into this territory, I'm pondering my own anger, my own sense of being unheard (and I do have that feeling often enough---I think many LGBT folk of religious conviction do!) and my own relation to beauty and ugliness. Beauty has often been related to "good," as in moral good. I begin to wonder if I the ugliness of art (not just performance art) of the last half century or more doesn't have something to do with justice or the lack thereof. In which case, is this the art of the prophetic?

Perhaps most importantly, I begin to wonder what I have to lose.