THE ART OF BREAKING TABOOS
Sensitive issues? Sensitive to whom? Sensitive within what historical time period? Raising these kinds of questions in an issue focused on “artists who deal with sensitive issues” is in itself raising and dealing with a sensitive issue. By seeing art in terms of “dealing with sensitive issues”, it places art in the same shallow realm as journalism and fashion. What is a sensitive issue has to do more with the social context within which the art is done than with the art itself. So when the focus is on the social context rather than the art itself, the art gets limited by being tied to political correctness, to fashion, to the thinking by the galleries and other “art experts” that they have the right to dictate the form, style, content, and the subjects of the current art. It would be far better to let future historians analyze the art in terms of “sensitive issues”, and let us artists get back to creating.
From what I have said so far, it might appear I am blasting this very magazine. I am not. What this issue of the magazine does is give me an opportunity to raise a major but hidden concern within my art...the liberation of art from the power structures of art. It is one thing for an artist to deal with, just for an example, AIDS because he personally, artistically is pulled into it by his emotions and his life...and quite a different thing when he does a piece on AIDS because galleries are booking “AIDS pieces” this year. When galleries and theaters impose the subject matter, form, and style of the art they present, it is the same as when they would not book any political art in the ’40s and ’50s.
A few years ago I was in a controversy with a gallery which tried to withdraw their booking of me. The reason that was given was that my art was old fashion because it used nudity, audience participation, rituals, and extended time lengths (5-48 hours)...all of which, according to them, went out of fashion with the ’60s. Then they somehow heard I had within the piece a nude guy wearing a sign saying “I have AIDS.” They said, “now that is interesting...we are booking that kind of art!” They did not ask why he was in the piece. He was a member of my cast who discovered he had AIDS. “The dying man” role was a part of an intense process of exploring death, for both Carlos and people in general, as a part of a lustful joyful life. Within the piece, Carlos talked to each person about dying in this context. Later in the piece, Carlos as a regular cast member erotically played with the audience. AIDS was just one aspect of the death process, which in turn was just one aspect of the alternative human experience which was the performance. Focusing on Carlos as an “AIDS victim” obscures him, cheapens him, objectifies him, fragments him away from humanity.
This is also true when we focus on a work of art or an artist in terms of objectifying labels such as gay, woman, black, disabled, etc. I have cerebral palsy, am in a wheelchair, move and sound uniquely. So that any art I do which uses my body just has to have an aspect of the disabled in it. But disability has never been the central theme of my work. However, disability has been a “sensitive issue” within the cultural frame to various degrees in the 20+ years that I have been performing.
When I was doing the tacky sexy gross cabaret show, The Outrageous Beauty Revue, in the late ’70s, I just happened to have in the cast of 30 three disabled guys as well as myself. Some in the audience were upset because they thought we were “normal” actors making fun of crips. It did not help when they figured out that we were “real crips”. They then assumed that somebody was exploiting us poor souls. When they discovered that we were the artists who had created the acts, they then accused us of self-exploitation. This is similar to when “feminists” tell women artists such as Annie Sprinkle and Karen Finley that they shouldn’t use their own nude bodies in their own art. I ran into this again after I did a shamanistic erotic ritual in Philadelphia. At the end of the piece, a guy accused me of using a cheap tactic of shock by using my body. If this criticism was valid, it would deny me the use of my own body. Obviously the physical disability aspect of my reality, although it is on the fringe of my art focus, does give me a powerful tool to get to my true focus, that of human liberation.
When I started my performance journey in the early ’70s, I was not interested in creating literary drama pictures, either fiction or based on real events. I wanted to create alternative realities which could be experienced and in which the normal rules and taboos do not apply. To create these awake dreams, I saw I had to break the traditional barriers between audience and performers, had to break the dramatic time structure (both the linear flow and the real time length) which has been held on to from the ancient Greeks down to modern movies and T.V. I was focused on creating within the interpersonal level both within performances and in working with groups of performers. I started doing street pieces, secret private pieces with one other person, public rituals which lasted from 5 to 48 hours. I also used low cost technologies and tactics which were in reach of everyone, but which were frowned upon by the art experts because of the lack of a “certain level of professional quality”. The concern about “professional quality” has kept the creation of “real or fine art” in the hands of an art elite.
All of this breaks the taboos concerning form, time, and style. But the taboos concerning form, time, and style are in reality the main reason why I have had problems doing this art in “the art world” for most of my career. This was not as true when I started out. One reason for this was, instead of performing in galleries and theaters, I performed in rented dance halls, school gyms, rock clubs, and my own studios. But the main reason why I had an easier time doing my art was I was working within a different, more open, culture and artistic environment than the current one. My work was in the context of art done by Anna Halprin, The Living Theatre, the performance group of Richard Schechner, Grotowski, etc...and of course Artaud. I was working within an artistic context which was using the breaking of taboos within the traditional time/style format, breaking them to create a subversive alternative reality to the normal reality of fragmentation and isolation. Within this culture and artistic environment, what I did was less “sensitive”...and hence less subversive.
But what I did was made much more “sensitive” and subversive because of the artistic environment of performance in the late ’70s shifting into personal monologues about the normal reality instead of creating an alternative experience of reality, shifting back onto the theatrical stage. Directors of galleries and theaters started telling me they were not booking me at their spaces because they are personally afraid of the audience participation, the extended time, and/or the trance experience. I always thought this is a valid honest reason for not booking me. These directors often voted for my work when they were on committees for venues other than their own.
But some galleries step over the line into looking at both the artist and the art as a packaged commodity by telling the artist what changes have to be made in the art in form, style, content, subject, time, to make the art suitable for the gallery. This assumes the artist has a choice or the power to mold the art.
This is a basic misunderstanding of the process of creating art. As a person, I have always needed to break out of personal and physical isolation. To do this, I need to bring other people into an altered reality to play in an expanded/extended “sexuality”. All the forms and contents of the art flow uncontrolled from this depth of need. I am sure this is true of all good artists who are drawn into taboos areas. We do not see what we do as “dealing with sensitive issues”, but as things we must do.