WHAT PRICE FAME
18 October, 1997
I don’t know why artists think fame is all that hard to get, or something worthy of seeking. Why, it’s as easy as falling off a log, as easy as dying. You just have to surrender to the forces of gravity and decay. The mainstream entertainment, by it sheer mass, has always sucked artists out of the fringe, the underground. That is just gravity. In reality, it takes a lot to enter, and to stay in, the underground. The underground is where the real freedom and the real ability to change society are to be found. This is why artists CHOOSE the underground instead of the mainstream. This is also why, when an artist is pulled into the mainstream, this freedom and ability decay. In my own career, I have worked very hard to stay in the underground…this work has been hard precisely because some of the pieces have turned out to be “popular” (whatever that means!)…attracting the mainstream sharks.
The mainstream has always tried to create a fake avant-garde with fake controversies, fake taboos, fake “hipness”, etc. to give the marks a controlled fun-ride through a Disneyland to keep them away from the real edge of life. This is because the powers-that-be can not control or exploit what is in the real avant-garde.
About every five years, the fame makers “discover” me, want to make me famous. I always play along. But I also always do “the wrong thing” to keep my work surfing just below the “fame wave”. Fame cripples art. But the sub-fame level is where the hidden channels of effecting, healing, changing, dreaming, myth‑giving powers lie.
It is easier to stay in this sub-fame level when you do private performances than when you do public performances…because in public performances layers of seductions, limitation, consideration, taboos, morals, ways of being politically correct are laid on the art and the artist by either the powers of the establishment or the "alternative" power systems of the present society or both. But I like the challenge of doing very public work without surrendering to the fame manufacturers.
When I do a public piece, I am not swayed by how many people come or by how many walk out, because I am still functioning, and rooted, in the channels of magical change that I became aware of by doing private performances. This rooting in private rituals gives the artist freedom from, and weapons against, the corrupting concerns of money, fame, competition, good taste, acceptance, and the search for an audience. This freedom is important in shamanistic art, which is art that acts for nonlinear change, because, by bringing new dreams, new myths, new visions into society from the universal underworld, it radically changes society. By being linked to a power system, be it establishment or alternative, the artist is trapped in a basic conflict of interest, because she has aligned herself either with protecting the social system or with a certain manner of change, when her true job is to carry the new visionary myths from the gods into this world through her body.
When the artist is rooted in private rituals, it becomes clear that she is not an agent for society, or some political movement, or the art galleries and art "experts", or even for her own individualistic imagination. Instead, she is an agent of the gods, of dreams, of visions and myths. This causes reactions in society, especially when the piece is public.
Karen Finley is criticized for limiting her audience because she offends them by her words, anger, nudity. An artist who is rooted in the private channels is not affected by this attempt to curb the power of the art by strapping it to audience acceptance and agreement. The power of a Karen Finley is the taboo‑breaking energy she releases into society. This societal pressure to tame art down, which usually sounds very reasonable and comes even from liberal sources, is very hard for the artist to resist who is not familiar with the hidden channels of change.
So it is always tragic to see artists who are known for doing underground, shamanistic, and/or risky art get sucked, seduced, absorbed, tricked, bribed into “the mainstream.” It is tragic not only in personal terms for the individual artists, but in terms of the big picture. When an artist sets herself up as being an artist who goes beyond the normal frame, who tells the hard truths, who explores the unknown…not to be hip, or controversial, or to be interesting…but because that is how our tribal human being evolves, so it has to be done…when that kind of artist then goes after money, personal fame, and/or glamour while still claiming to be doing avant-garde art, it is denying society the real evolutionary function of the real avant-garde. It tells people, audiences and artists alike, that the avant-garde is just a branch of the entertainment complex with the same rules, goals, reality as television, rock music, Hollywood, and sports. This is like telling people a can of Slim Fast is a balanced meal of real food. It is a lie. And the scary dangerous thing is artists are buying/selling this lie.
Another example of society's attempt to rechannel the change coming from shamanistic art is what an "art expert" told me: "Your work is...not art...(because) it doesn't address the concerns...(which are a) part of the current art dialog, whether it be mainstream or 'alternative'...curators and presenters are (not) obliged to show it." She went on to say that I should stay "in (my) own sphere", and that I don't need the public channels that galleries represent. Which is true. But galleries and the people who think what is in galleries is the full range of art needs the artists, not the reverse. The magic of private performance is needed to expand the narrow, shallow river of "the current art dialogue," controlled both in content and depth by the art experts. Fortunately, there are galleries which are willing to go into the magical unknown represented by private performances.
Another way society tries to deball the magical power or private performance is to co‑opt it by absorbing it back into the normal reality. What happened to Paul McCarthy is a classic example. Paul is, or was, the best of the modern shamanistic performers. In the 70's, he did performances in run down motels. He transformed into a rubber‑masked trickster who called forth realities of vomit, of messy meals of dog food, mayo and catsup..., of wearing women's clothes...of hard‑ons dangling out of girls' underwear fucking dolls, tubes up asshole and down throat and up the nose..., of fucking alone in a motel bed in mayo..., of walking bloodied barefoot on glass. Friends watched via video in another motel room. But most ran out in shock. This shock is a special kind of shock. It is not the shock of when a youngster uses obscenity or when a guy exposes himself. It is not a reaction or an aggressive act. It is more like culture shock. It is a reality shock. It is when two different realities come together, collide, and combine. This happened around Paul's pieces. Most people could not handle it. But the shock released incredible amounts of uplifting energy.
By the early 80's, Paul had been discovered by the art scene. He was invited to the San Francisco Art Institute to do a performance. The big hall was packed with students. Paul did his rituals, which in the past would have cleared the room, shocked and physically disturbed most people. But this time, the audience laughed and clapped at everything this clown did. They even drank catsup with him to show how hip they were. There was no shock, no magic, no colliding of realities. Paul stopped, defeated. He was cut off from his private, magical roots by being transformed from an outlaw magician into a hot artist.
He told me the day after he felt the loss of the magic but did not know how to get it back. After a few more performances, he stopped performing...which is a great loss to us all. He was defeated because he underrated not only the importance of his private magic, but how much it threatened normal reality.
As published in Movement Research Performance Journal #16, Spring 1998
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