Sunday, May 1, 2016

On Prince and Other Artists Who Challenged Norms




Dave and I paid homage to Prince by going to an outdoor screening of Purple Rain.

I checked a local online news source right as my 6th period class settled into their seats. This is a habit for me, a way to assuage my anxiety, double-checking to see if the world has fallen apart before the end of the day.

The headline told me that Prince was dead. And I did something I almost never do as a teacher – I sat down. No. I didn’t sit. I was knocked down.

I was not a Prince fanatic. I had never gone to one of his concerts, and I hadn’t purchased his music since college, or maybe a few years after. Every time one of his songs came on the radio or at a club (back in the days when I regularly went dancing), I squealed like a child and danced my rear end off, but that doesn’t really set me apart from too many other folks.
 
But I’m mourning Prince pretty hard. And here’s why.

Prince was an artist who spent his life snatching up society’s expectations of him, turning them over in his (gorgeous) hands, then rearranging that Rubik’s Cube of patriarchy and racism and strict gender definitions into an intricate, lacy sculpture that floated away in the breeze.

He showed me that I wasn’t alone in thinking that the way the world had “always been” wasn’t necessarily the best way. That maybe just because someone expected me to fall into a certain line or behave a certain way, I didn’t necessarily have to. That - no matter how vigilantly others mocked me or failed to understand me or tolerate me - I could strut through this life, sunglasses on, lollipop in my mouth, twitching my hips and throwing shade that would thrust them right back into their places.

Of course, it didn’t hurt that I spent a great deal of my youth madly in love with the guy, but again, that doesn’t really set me apart from most people between the ages of 20 and 60.

Prince is part of an elite club of artists who fed my closeted anti-establishment views. Artists who helped me feel less alone, less bizarre, less destined to spend this life trying to fit my round, round body into a very square peg.

In middle school, I went to an art museum for the first time. My wonderful art teacher took us on a field trip to the J.B. Speed Art Museum in Louisville, a hefty one-hour trip from my house, yet the closest art museum we had.

I loved all the art – the pretty Impressionist pieces, the weird Medieval paintings, the creamy marble sculptures.

But the world stopped right at the end of our tour. There, right on the floor of the museum, was something I’d never seen in my life. Shocking. A little scary. Provocative. 


 "Dejeuner sur L'Herbe" (1982) by John De Andrea

It was an incredibly life-like sculpture of a nude woman and two men, resting on the floor. The woman was so realistic, you could see the veins in her skin and folds of her stomach and her pubic hair. She lounged in a pensive way, resting along with the two fully-clothed men.

This was a modern adaptation of the famous Manet paining, “Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe,” or “Lunch on the Grass.” It’s a portrayal of a model and two artists taking a break. I’d seen the original, but this was different.
I felt like I was invading on their personal moment. But I also couldn’t look away. The extreme realism unsettled me. The proximity to my space, the lack of a fourth wall or an ornate frame or a red velvet rope made me feel vulnerable. Why did so look so upset? What happened right before this moment?

I loved it. But, as I mentioned, this was middle school. The kids around me snickered so hard I thought they would explode. The boys were losing their minds over the nudity, the girls acted grossed out. Our teacher was exasperated, irritated, shuttling us along to the bus. But I hung back. I loved the way this piece made me feel. And I’ve never forgotten it.

In college, I read what felt like a million plays to fulfill my drama degree. But one knocked me to the ground: Fefu and Her Friends by Maria Irene Fornes. Every single character was a women. These women were strong and strange. There was a lesbian couple – fairly shocking to me in 1997. 

But the best part was that Fornes decided to take the traditional theatrical form and rip it to shreds. After the first act, the audience is divided into small groups, led into different smaller rooms. Group A will then see certain scenes in one order, while Group B will see a different order, and so on. So each group sees ALL the scenes, but in totally different orders. And these scenes reveal important things about the characters’ and their relationships that will color your views of the other scenes. WHICH MEANS YOU GET A TOTALLY DIFFERENT THEATRICAL EXPERIENCE DEPENDING ON WHICH GROUP YOU’RE IN.
Sorry, I get a little excited when I talk about this.

Years and years and years of men writing plays starring men talking about men’s issues, and here’s a woman that says, “actually, that doesn’t work for me.” And having the audacity to just change it. Mind. Blown. 

When I met Fornes years later at a talk and told her that she's my hero, she put her hand on my shoulder, looked me straight in the eye, and said, "Never make a human being your hero; that's a dangerous thing to do."

Moving to New York City where I had access to world-class art museums and theaters every single weekend, my world view just exploded. Performance art, bizarre video projections, large-scale installation pieces, avant garde and absurdist plays, risqué musicians – everywhere I looked, someone was validating my belief that the boundaries of society expectations and norms should constantly be tested.

The Sensations Exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art was massively controversial. Mayor Guiliani all but waged a war against it and its immorality. Art critics didn't love it, and to get in, you had to wait in a massive line that snaked through screaming protesters.

Of course I had to go.

Along the entrance were signs that read "May cause shock, vomiting, confusion, panic, euphoria, and anxiety." I went alone, and I'm so glad I did. The art I saw that day was so earth-shattering, so groundbreaking for someone who'd grown up in a rural town of 1,000 people, that I simply had to inch my way through, pausing in front of some pieces for over half an hour, sitting to catch my breath after something particularly mind-boggling.

I have recounted exact pieces of art and their effect on me to my husband so many times, that he has to stop me and say, "Yes, you've told me about the giant photograph of a shotgun wound that looks like something else from far away."

It did cause nausea. It did cause anxiety. It definitely caused euphoria. And it made me think and think and think and think.

The most famous piece is "The Holy Virgin Mary" by Chris Ofili, because it is decorated with elephant dung. While this was considered offensive to the Catholic Church, while others argued that the dung is considered sacred in parts of Africa. Honestly, to me, this was nowhere near the most shocking piece of the entire exhibit.

To whom would that prize go? Too many contenders to count. But one piece that stands out to me is a giant portrait. From afar, it just seemed like a blurry, interesting black and white portrait of an attractive woman. As I approached, I realize the portrait was comprised of hundreds of handprints - small handprints. It was called "1995 depiction of Myra Hindley" by the Young British Artist Marcus Harvey. She was a convicted British child killer, found guilty of killing three children, suspected of raping and killing five total. She was a household name in Britain for all the wrong reasons.


Chills went up and down my spine. The handprints were vile, terrifying, mesmerizing. If I'd just seen her picture and read what she'd done, I would have been disturbed. Seeing her portait painted out of tiny handprints made me FEEL what she had done on a visceral level. 

The day sent me reeling. I left the museum, took the subway home, and sat in a daze the rest of the day. The world as I knew it was only that way because people had made it that way and others had perpetuated that notion. Art is paint on a canvas in a frame. It is? Why? Because that's what someone said a long time and that's the way it's always been.

Anyway, I digress. I'm grateful to the many, many artists who've shown me that questioning the world around me, challenging the norms that I think are outdated or harmful - I'm not alone in these actions. 

Thank you, Prince, for your life and works. Your death has inspired almost all of us to have the most kick-ass running soundtracks in our heads for over a week. You will be remembered and cherished.


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