In 2012, I wrote a post called “Kanye West and Fashion Amnesia” after people freaked out over the leather kilt Kanye West wore at the 12/12/12 Concert for Sandy Relief. I was shocked too — but only because Kanye had been wearing the damn skirt for more than a year for his “Watch the Throne” tour with Jay-Z. The skirt got plenty of press during that tour, so I couldn’t understand why it was so new to everyone, even critics who should have already seen it.
The same kind of pop-culture amnesia is happening now with Lady Gaga, who had performance artist Millie Brown vomit brightly colored milk on her during a SXSW gig, to the surprise and/or distress of various commentators including former Disney star/TV-talent-show judge and rehabbed pop starlet Demi Lovato. I don’t know how big the audience was at SXSW, but it was certainly smaller than the cumulative audiences for Gaga’s Monster Ball tour. I saw that tour twice in 2010. After the first concert, I wrote:
“… my favorite video footage of the evening …. showed a brunette vomiting neon green onto Lady Gaga’s straitjacket-ish white dress. My new ambition is to be someone who gets to vomit on Lady Gaga in a video!”
Yep. Four years ago, Millie Brown appeared on giant video screens in front of many thousands of people, all over the world, vomiting on Lady Gaga. Here’s the video; Millie is at 44 seconds. (It’s beautifully shot and very “editorial.” Don’t be scared.)
About a year after my second Gaga show, the Huffington Post wrote about Millie Brown‘s artistic upchuck, noting:
“Those of you who have seen Lady Gaga’s Monster Ball will already be familiar with Brown’s work. In a video interlude (which can be viewed in the slideshow below), Brown vomits color onto Gaga’s dress.”
I always say that if you don’t know history, you have no perspective on current events, but usually I’m thinking of 14th-century shit. Are we all really getting so ADHD that even with the help of Google, we can’t recognize that the thing we’re outraged over today is the same thing we had a chance to be outraged about a year (or four) ago?
Lest you think performance art dealing with bodily functions is new and something to be blamed on Lady Gaga and perhaps the Interwebs, let me bring you back to 1986 when the Village Voice published an article about performance artist Karen Finley. The piece, by C. Carr, was entitled “Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts: The Taboo Art of Karen Finley.” A Finley work called “Yams Up My Granny’s Ass” — mentioned in the article — became infamous. The Los Angeles Times described it thus:
“The 30-year-old artist inserted the aforementioned vegetable into an unlikely orifice while delivering an X-rated monologue littered with obscenities.”
However, the critics ASS-umed they were seeing something that didn’t really happen. The original Carr article had it right when it said, “… Finley dumps a can of yams over her naked buttocks and lets it drip into her boots.” Over a decade later, Finley wrote:
“I thought about writing a letter … but every time I sat down to write, ‘I never put a yam in my butt,’ I’d think — but what if I had? SO WHAT? I felt that defending, explaining, clarifying, would somehow be giving in to them. … I did react to the attacks in one way — they pissed me off so much that I became even more determined to continue doing outrageous work using my body.”
Finley became even more notorious in 1990, when the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts vetoed grants to her and three other performance artists on the grounds of “decency”; the fight eventually made its way up to the Supreme Court, which overturned the lower courts’ findings, which had been in favor of Finley and the other artists. In between the yam controversy of 1986 and the NEA battle of 1990, I interviewed Finley for the Columbia Daily Spectator after she appeared in Mondo New York, a 1988 movie about performance artists that opened my mind to that kind of art. “Finley doesn’t feel that the use of her body in her performances — at a recent show , for example, she smeared her naked body with chocolate — degrades her in any way,” I wrote. The artist told me:
“I never looked at it that way … I’m looking at myself as being the art object. It’s a visual act and I think that that’s something very sensual and visual and very ritualistic. I think that’s something that’s really missing from our culture. We’re so sensation-starved because we don’t perform any rituals.”
But to really understand what Finley was doing, you need to read Carr’s whole piece, which said of Finley:
“…her monologues are obscenity in its purest form — never just a litany of four-letter expletives but an attempt to express emotions for which there are no words. An attempt to approach the unspeakable.”
Later in the piece, Carr wrote:
“Whatever might spew from the wound in the psyche Finley describes in the language of pornography. But she renders the pornography impotent. In this id-speak, shitting and vomiting and fucking are all equal. Desire attaches to disgust. Finley’s work moves beyond rage to the trigger for that rage. To damage and longing, the desperate want for something, the hole in all of us that nothing ever fills. … It’s a big bulimic landscape of consumption and expulsion out there.”
That paragraph leads right to what Millie Brown is doing. “There’s a clear difference between using my body to create something beautiful, to express myself and feel powerful, rather than using it to punish myself and conform to society’s standards,” Brown has said to people accusing her of glamorizing bulimia when she’s really commenting on it and transforming it. You’re entitled to hate that kind of art — in fact, I expect you to — but at least come up with your own hate rather than going along with Demi Lovato’s peculiar criticism. I say it’s peculiar because Lovato does plenty to glamorize her own much-publicized troubles. Those perfect tears rolling down Lovato’s cheeks in the music video for her top-10 pop song “Skyscraper“? The stylish “Stay Strong” wrist tattoos that all the Lovatics know are about a cutting problem? Those are more conventionally beautiful and have more reach than a vomit artist’s spew ever will, even with Gaga’s help. Personally, I’m not at all against Lovato’s expressing herself that way (though it would have more meaning if she wrote that song herself). However, because she does do those things, I find her criticism of Gaga/Brown disingenuous. But hey! Way to get a lot of press out of someone else’s performance, Demi!
Anyway, all of this has me searching high and low for my original, 1993 copy of Karen Finley’s Enough Is Enough: Weekly Meditations for Living Dysfunctionally. I used to read and re-read what Amazon describes as “a humorous take on the self-help revolution” because I desperately needed a laugh from Finley’s “daily meditations on living with all sorts of fetishes, obsessions, and nasty little dysfunctions.” Anti-censorship-activist performance artists can be funny too! And that reminds me I’ve been meaning to comment on the tragically premature death of the smart/angry/highlarious 1990s performance artist/slam poet Maggie Estep last month. Yoga-loving, vegetarian Estep had a heart attack at the age of 50. (Hmmm …is Demi Lovato’s 2013 song “Heart Attack” a glamorization of myocardial infarction?) I have Estep’s first book, Diary of an Emotional Idiot. You should order it; in the meantime, enjoy her performance of “Emotional Idiot” on the groundbreaking Def Poetry Jam.
“What am I, your fucking cat?! Don’t rub me like that!!” RIP, Maggie! You made us so happy.