I have been thinking this morning about Lady Gaga, and what it is about her that makes many intellectuals and artists reluctant to fully embrace her, and I believe part of what’s up is that many are made uncomfortable by her complete lack of irony. She presents a text that is earnestly flat, earnestly surface, and earnestly pop, rather than self aware or winking. Although many of her texts — particularly her video texts — seem conversant with critical theory, or at least offer an array of images and narratives that can be “read” through critical theory, it is never fully clear that she knows precisely what she is doing. She will invariably follow these moments with statements in the press that are either absurdly pretentious and “meaningless,” or else aggressively shallow, seeming to mimic the well-worn tropes of divadom and celebrity (ie her obsessive love affair with her fans). And so artist-intellectuals, if they are to authorize her work as “art,” first want to know once and for all whether she is self-consciously performative, or just ridiculous. They want some authoritative confirmation that she is something more than another pop star simulacrum, albeit one who is slightly better read, and who wears more outlandish clothing.
But I would argue that Gaga is meant to exist within this liminal space between “pop” and “art.” I think, were she to resolve that tension, she would no longer be Gaga. And I think part of what’s up is that for Gaga, theater and “authenticity” (or what for her, represents, “authentic,” honest art) are not dichotomous. And I think “theater” is perhaps the most appropriate term for describing her performance. Like Gaga, much theater, especially musical theater — a form that is often associated with queers and queerness, or at least with (predominately white, middle class and upper middle class) gay men — refuses irony. And musical theater is quite possibly the art form most reviled by much of the intelligentsia, save for the occasional nod to Sondheim’s genius.
I believe many of us remain threatened by art that is aggressively, earnestly superficial, and that embraces popular, familiar or mass-produced aesthetics without self-commentary (art which owes some debt to camp aesthetics, amongst others). For confirmation, head over to htmlgiant and check out the spirited discussion about our colleague A D Jameson’s excellent review of the film Drive. In response to A D’s praise of the film, a bunch of folks have been expressing their anxiety over whether this film is solely an exercise in style, whether it lacks “depth” and “meaning,” as these concepts have traditionally been constructed by many literary writers: As either thematic content (ie this movie has something distinctive to say about politics, history, “the human condition,” etc.), or “rich characterization” via psychological depth (motivation, counter-motivation, backstory, subtext, etc). In response, A D says something I quite agree with: “I’m one of those poor deluded souls who thinks surface is depth. Well-done direction is its own content.”
I think there is one perspective on the value of art-as-art (ie the one frequently espoused by Chris Higgs at htmlgiant) that is all about defending art’s prerogative to exist devoid of “content” or “meaning,” as solely aesthetic phenomenon. I think this is an important argument to keep in the mix, in order to protect art from moralistic policing, but I don’t think it’s the argument that most interests me. I like A D’s comment that surface is depth, because I like how it deconstructs the binary between surface and depth, and acknowledges that surface, style, the superficial can communicate in their own way many of the qualities we associate with “depth” — qualities like pathos, emotion, drama, subjectivity, qualities which in my own writing, continue to interest me quite a bit even as I push back against traditional forms and norms regarding things like characterization.
Although surfaces, the superficial, are fundamental to art, I feel like we (the ‘we’ here, I guess, being writers and intellectuals) have too fully ceded superficiality to the capitalist marketplace. By mass-producing aesthetic objects, commodifying aesthetics, applying monetary value to aesthetics, capitalism devalues aesthetics as art. (I realize I’m not really saying anything new here). And we allow this to happen. We are also maybe still way too beholden to “Western” philosophy’s construction of the “self,” the “soul,” as somehow separate from the body and its surfaces.
I think this is one of the reasons I have been drawn to writing that foregrounds the body, writing by fierce folks like Kathy Acker, Dodie Bellamy, Lidia Yuknavich, Rebecca Brown. When we place the body at the center of our work, it becomes much harder to separate ourselves and our “characters” from the body, its surfaces and sensations. Lady Gaga’s work also involves the body and its many permutations and mutations, both “real” and “imaginary.” Something else I believe, but am still struggling to articulate, is that art that embraces surfaces and superficiality over the construction of psychological “depth” acts in a more direct way upon the body of the reader, viewer or spectator through affect, and by invoking sensation. For instance, pop music makes you dance.
I have been drawn to fashion and pop music in my own work in large part because of how they connect me with my body, and allow me, in my live performances of my written texts, to involve my body as its own text. In my everyday life, I spend a lot of time in my head, disconnected from my body (I think this is probably true of many writers, stuck staring at computer screens). This dissatisfies me. It may seem counterintuitive that fashion allows me to more actively inhabit my body, because we have grown accustomed (I just typoed that “accostumed,” which I think is deliciously apropos) to thinking about fashion, especially outlandish and performative fashion, as something which cloaks or masks the body. But we forget that the mask cannot exist without the face. That in fact the mask transforms the face, and allows the face to express sentiments, characterizations, gestures, flourishes, that would not be possible without this surface alteration. For some of her initial appearances surrounding her Born This Way single and album, Gaga attached prosthetics to her face that made it appear the shape of her skull had changed, that sharp, geometric bones had grown along the sides of her head. In interviews, she claimed that these bones had been with her since birth, but she had been waiting for them to grow, to show themselves to the world. How would it shift our understanding of “art” and “writing” were we to take this seemingly ridiculous claim at “face value?”