ART IS NOT TOOTHPASTE
Written in 1990. Published in The Drama Review (TDR) 1991. Also from the book, “Frankly Speaking: A Collection of Essays, Writings & Rants” by Frank Moore, published by Inter-Relations in 2014.
This is in response to Catherine Schuler’s “Spectator Response and Comprehension: The Problem of Karen Finley’s Constant State of Desire” published in the Summer 1990 issue of TDR. My main aim in this is not to defend Finley’s work. The content of the work should be the only defense needed. But art itself needs to be defended from being framed in as a commodity on the same level as toothpaste, politicians, and T.V. shows.
I was shocked and frightened at the kind of thinking which Schuler’s writing represents. Schuler clearly does not like Finley’s work. Schuler seems to pin her dislike on the symbols and words Finley uses, calling them “pornographic...angry, confrontational, and deliberately provocative...something vaguely obscene...she (Finley) uses language and images associated with the most repugnant forms of heterosexual sadomasochistic pornography.”
Schuler does not say what the language and images are or why she thinks they are obscene and pornographic. The words “pornographic” and “obscene” are words which have high emotional content and very little, if any, content of definable meaning. They are words which the enemies of human freedom such as Senator Jesse Helms use as a smokescreen to justify suppression and repression. In these days of new McCarthyism, careless use of such words by people who consider themselves feminists and humanists can have most dangerous results.
Words and images in themselves are not either good or bad, healing or destructive. If Schuler feels that Finley in her work uses words and images to exploit or abuse people, then there would be legitimate grounds for critical discussion about Finley’s art. To me it seems obvious that Finley has always used words and images in a subversive poetic way to battle such exploitation and abuse. There are legitimate questions about the angry intensity of the work jading people, and questions about does the work offer alternatives to what it is destroying...does it have to offer such alternatives?
Schuler does not focus upon the work itself and her personal reaction to the work. Instead, she focuses on the myth surrounding the work. This myth is created, not by the work nor by the artist, but by the press, by rumor, by word of mouth, by fragmentary bits of information escaping into the outer world. This myth is one of the materials that the artist has to work with. People may come to the work because of the myth, but what is important is what happens when people come in contact with the art itself. I learned a long time ago that the myth has very little to do with me as the artist. I can never live up to the myth. The art just takes some people who come to the art beyond the myth. This is what happens to me when I go to a Finley piece.
What is disturbing about Schuler’s essay is her lack of understanding of what art does, how art works. Her basic point in the piece is the need that she sees for “more traditional, benign forms of feminist performance.” But instead of exploring what these forms are or might be, she attacks Finley as a representative of the avant garde. We liberal/radical/revolutionaries have always been prone to this kind of self-defeating cannibalization of our own kind.
What is scary about Schuler’s article is she does not seem to think her own reaction to the art is enough to talk about. Instead, she invents a fictional character called “average spectator” or, better yet, “the average female spectator”. If this fictional character responds “appreciatively” to the art, then the art works as “a vehicle for meaningful social and political analysis”. But if the work leaves our average female spectator leaving the theater in confusion, frustration, anger, rejection, then the work has failed as a feminist piece because our average female spectator is, after all, a female. The logic is sexist. But it also creates a cardboard flat reality.
Schuler tries to breathe scientific life into this cardboard reality by conducting a pop exit poll after one of Finley’s shows. Fifteen people are not a scientific sample even if art were something linear like a bar of soap, a politician, or a T.V. series. But this exit poll gives this fictional average female spectator an illusion of importance in some sociological anthropological unreality. What Schuler does not realize is the only important thing is what the art made her feel. Anything else is putting dangerous frames around the art.
During over 20 years of performing, I have learned that the apparent audience response during the performance or immediately after the performance is rarely the person’s final response to the art. Some people who loved the performance experience as it was happening, go home and freak out. Other people who were bored, hostile, or even walked out, very often come up to me days, weeks, even years later to say the performance turned out to be an important event in their lives. This nonlinear dynamic is so common that I put a warning sign in the lobby outlining this dynamic. It may take years for someone to come to terms with a work of art. Because art uses so many channels of influence (many of these channels are subconscious and nonrational), good art plants seed and time bombs within the person. These seeds and time bombs may take years to bloom or to explode.
This is why it is so dangerous to link the art to the apparent “spectator response and comprehension”. It would bring art to the level of a T.V. show whose worth is measured by the overnight ratings; down to the level of the politician who changes his image and views according to the polls; down to the level of the Hollywood movie that is recut after a negative test audience response.
Art is not just a “vehicle for meaningful social and political analysis”. It is magic, working its change even in confusion, frustration, anger, and even rejection. There are many channels in art, some so occult that not even the artist understands all of the meanings. Trust the art, trust the magic, trust the ability of the people to ultimately absorb humanist art!
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