by Lara Glenum on Jan.04, 2014
[I asked the women featured in the New York Daily News article if I could interview them about the public response to the article. I asked them each the same set of five questions. Some of the women preferred to answer specific questions; others chose to write their own essays. I’ll be posting their responses here serially over the next 24 hours.]
#beautiful #ugly #women #feelings
Having become distressed by Things in Life, I came to the conclusion that I needed wholly to change up my imaginarium. The picture book Myself that had become unbearable to me had to be replaced with something other, perhaps its opposite. But behold: the stranger I wished to become was me; I had so alienated myself from my history that the strangest person I could now become was myself.
This sense of integration with the other of oneself – the state in which one perceives one’s changing physical characteristics, remembers the societies of people and the microcultures which passed through one’s life, to make an impact and/or never to be seen again – the smell of pigeon-grey ozone on a Zagreb morning in 1982 and NYC air on New Year’s Eve 2014 – is an experience often denied women in particular, because of the systems of control, the taboos and vetoes attached to their perception and self-perception. We can agree that a great bulk of the bodily-aesthetic dimension of contemporary American culture is filtered through women. How women do and should look in their youth and as they age is, in the style of the film They Live, the consistent theme of so much TV and other media content. The “alternative” art culture and queer culture are no more exempt from this focus on bodily appearance – or the persona aura – than the mainstream.
A poet’s work and performance may manifest this burden in any number of ways. Maybe she enables it, fully plays along, and reaps the benefits and censure of being the submissive in a mainstream script; maybe she ignores it, rejects it, focusing instead on form, materials, technique, or embracing an alternative aesthetic of queerness or ugliness. Maybe she performs it indifferently, or as drag, and maybe through performance ends up playing it off against itself. Such analysis often comes after the art is performed, in the sphere of reaction, because I’d like to think the freedom of engaging in art renders us at least partly unconscious of the effect we, and our work, will have. A didactic poetics is a yawn..
It is this last approach – the performance of femininity, the engagement of its inherent performativity – that provokes perhaps the most ambiguous response, specifically in otherwomen. At its most effective, it can trigger awe or horror, because performing something implies implication, an awareness of the taint, a potency tinged with the ridiculous and the compromised. Picture a man who sees his wife and mistress online at the same time, and his moment of discomfort: are they talking to each other right now? This suggestion that the superego and the id might be in touch directly, provokes more terror than a scenario in which their communication is coded and filtered through the ego.
When poets like Monica McClure and Trisha Low engage with things like fashion, the propaganda of glamour, the drama of the teen (that fulcrum of idic energy that must especially be controlled so that it may be sexualized on someone else’s terms), they promote discomfort; when their practice is promoted by the New York Daily News, in an article written in the language of a fairground crier – the distress, for some women in the audience, deepens. Moreso, perhaps, if they’re artists themselves. They demand an explanation:
You mean to say these poets acknowledge openly, via playing with its code (which is after all a language), the terror imposed on women by a culture that demands women mirror its desires, sculpting them back into pre-transformation Galateas, often with the use of what could be art materials, like silicone? That they claim awareness without seeming fully to reject the dominant by fully embracing an alternative aesthetic? Are they collaborators?
The largely correct assessment of the Daily News as an unlikely (and do we ask why?) and somehow funny venue for such a piece, the caveats of “supporting the poets but being disturbed by the context/treatment” already indicate that we all know what is going on: cultural propaganda that still opens up a genuine window for these poets’ work and performance to be viewed. So what is really beautiful or ugly in this picture: the culture, the poets or the feelings? The response of some of the incensed commenters verges on sexual terror: because by appearing to collaborate (while maybe subverting – or maybe not), provocative, implicatory poetics – and that includes performance – tugs at the umbilical cord that ties women of all ages, including women artists, together to the culture’s aesthetic and libidinal economy. The terror stems from the sense of implication: of course this tug hurts. The performances, the press, the selfies, the online and public personae we all navigate; the promise-threat of attention or the lack of it; the praise, violence or indifference we can increasingly hardly imagine our“selves” without, wherein I’m a currency, therefore I am… Quel horreur – but also – quelle réalité, and what a game. Whether you’re a young woman poet thinking of how to dress for a reading, or a mature artist considering your legacy as icon or iconic abstainer from iconography – the struggle is real, la lutte continue.
Terrorized, uncomfortable readers and poets in the audience look to the featured poets themselves for the source of own discomfort by microanalysing their appearance, weighing it against the context, etcetera, as though lodging a complaint will produce a solution to the insoluble problem. But after this probably unavoidable and not wholly unjustified gestalt plays itself out, the place to look for a way is one’s own practice, where the aesthetic meets aesthetics.
If it’s true that I’m split by the demands and expectations made on me as a woman-within-culture, do I care? Do I practice abjection by fetishizing and writing a fractured self/split subject? Do I ape the culture back at itself indifferently or subversively? Do I occlude or reject self altogether and let in other selves through appropriative techniques? Do I obstinately continue to write down the words in my head? How does my practice integrate me, when practice is the only power many of us have at our disposal for this task? Do I give a fuck about cultures, dominant or alternative, that expect me to be this way or that – do I reject personal integration vis a vis culture altogether? Why focus only on the appearance of the poets, on the journalist, the photographer, rather than on the culture(s) we share, and the way these poets’ work and our own interacts with culture? Only the work can inquire deeply and answer questions – and the work will hopefully do so through its own medium rather than some didactic explanation, which, let’s admit it, never satisfies, and is really the fucking death of art.
We want the questions of our desire and others’ desire (or lack thereof) for us and our work to be explained to us in the language of public discussion: but to understand what’s going on, and remain in that realm, is not enough. The language that does not explain but does one better – offers the only avenue to freedom through its processes of mirroring, transposing or transforming – is that of art. *
* I respond specifically to the nature of public discussion and reactions to the New York Daily News piece, because the controversy is why I understand we are discussing the piece now. In the interest of simplicity I refuse to drop any names other than the poets’ own, though clearly I use some psychoanalytic terms, because I find these tools fun. So few of the discussions on this piece engaged the actual work printed; few commented on the less-controversial photos (including my own, which interests me insofar as I look unlike I do now). I would like to take an in-depth look at the performative practices of all the other poets featured – Lisa Marie Basile, Alina Gregorian, and Camille Rankine – and perhaps that’s a piece for the future.