CBC, NOW PRINCIPLE FREE I: CBC Radio Celebrates Pre-Formance Art

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A few weeks ago I listened to an interview by CBC Q alternate host Gill Deacon with performance artist, Heather Cassils, which landed a thorn in my paw that I haven’t been able to remove.

I should admit—before I begin my ranting attempt to extricate my irritation—that I am uneducated and often unkind in my viewing of performance art. I instinctively find it to be bogus, in part because it seems wild and meaningless, but also because of the way the artists themselves seem to hide from explaining their work. Infuriating responses such as, “What does my work mean to you?” leave me rolling my eyes. It is a tendency that invades all art forms, I’m sure: poetry, sculpture, and abstract painting being also among the most guilty, not necessarily because they are inherently meaningless art forms, but because their cultural worlds have promoted subjectivity at the expense of comprehensive analysis.

Studies suggest that wine connoisseurs will think a drink tastes better if they are told it costs more; similarly, I suspect, some devotees of performance art and sculpture will more highly value a work if it is not limited by legible communication. It is an exchange that benefits both sides as the artist is able to either randomly or simplistically put their confusing whims on a canvass, call it the workings of a soul in turmoil, and wait for the grand interpretations to come in. “What does the work mean to you?” is a question that allows the greatness of the piece to not be restricted by the merits/intentions of the artist, but instead be (unwittingly?) manufactured by the imaginations and contemplations of the beholders. So, while the artists get to create work without the necessity of substance, their interpreters get to freely express their wild (sometimes brilliant) analysis without fear of contradiction from the source.

But Heather Cassils, in her interview, did not annoy me by this standard artistic babbling. Instead, I was disconcerted to find her straightforward and articulate. However, while my inner critic was not able to mock her for hiding from artistic analysis, it was able to be quenched by the fact that her work, unfettered by ambiguity, seemed shockingly simple to be receiving Q’s attention.

Ms. Cassils had been asked by Los Angles Contemporary Exhibitions to produce a work that paid homage to the history of performance in Southern California. The artistic dynamo then searched their archives and found a 1972 sculpture of photographs by feminist artist, Elinor Antin, who had starved herself for seventy-two days and taken pictures of herself “wasting away” to portray social expectations put on women.

(While this may have been a worthwhile feminist conversation to engage in regarding Western culture and how it seems to glamorize thin femininity to the point that girls may feel pressured to stay lean by any means, I wondered at this point in the interview whether such blatant artwork added anything new or helpful to the 1972 discussion. I would be surprised, that is, if such a heavy-handed and simple artistic rendering of this standard feminist argument provoked a change in any entrenched minds. But maybe at the time it was a revelatory point. Moreover, at least the artwork in this case was transparent and communicating directly with its audience.)

In response, Cassils wanted to make her own point through changing her body, but instead of a feminist criticism of how society misuses the female body, she wanted to “empower” women through a show of strength. Already a fitness trainer, herself, she hired professional bodybuilding experts to help her load as much muscle onto her physique as possible in six months. The result was an appearance that, to her apparent delight, baffled conventional gender guidelines as people had trouble wrapping their eyes around a woman looking similar to a well-muscled man. As a result, she says she was mocked by strangers and challenged to arm wrestling matches.

While I admire her strength (literally and figuratively), and recognize the pain she must have gone through to achieve this result, her product once again seems boring to me. Yes, with extra work, women can acquire muscle, too, and our brains—so used to large muscles primarily highlighting male bodies—will be surprised and perhaps disconcerted. Yet has Cassils taught us anything profound that we couldn’t have achieved from a few moments’ contemplation (or looking at female bodybuilders)?

But my biases are showing. According to Cassils, at one of her shows, a person approached her and said that, if he had seen her ten years before, he would have made different (presumably healthier) choices with his body. So, simple as it may seem on her surface, perhaps Cassils’s particular rendering can intuitively provoke some troubled observers to see themselves from a new (psychologically helpful) perspective.

The thorn that landed in my paw, however, was not Cassils’s presentation, but was derived from her interpretation of her own work. When asked about the experience of overloading her body, Cassils admitted that—while she had intended it to be empowering—it was, in fact, uncomfortable, explaining that:

“…the regime of the act of creating that transformation became very rigid: I couldn’t leave the city, I had to eat every three hours, the workouts became gruelling, I lost flexibility, I couldn’t do any kind of heart rate training, and so it became difficult to walk up stairs because I had twenty-three pounds of extra meat hanging off my body… and so something that I had initially thought would be this empowering thing became this oppressive thing.”

“So,” she ought to have concluded in reference to the ‘wasting away women’ metaphor that had first inspired her, “my artistic result makes me wonder if Western society also puts pressure on men to imprison themselves in a painful, obsessive exercise regimen that may eventually break their over-muscled bodies.”

Nope. Instead, the pains she felt while increasing her “masculinity” were not observed through the same lens that had told us how hard it was to be “feminine.”

Nor did the interviewer ask a question that would bring this obvious conclusion to the forefront. I suppose I can’t blame the artist or the interviewer. We live in a culture that rarely acknowledges that there may be painful pressures experienced by men that parallel those felt by women. Anorexia is considered a disease (or a form of cultural murder, according to some feminists), while excessive steroid use is a sign of men’s obsession with power. Cultural analysts rarely acknowledge that boys might feel pressured by images of shirtless large-muscled male superheroes in the same way that we think girls are influenced by images of uber-thin women in tiny clothing.

(I recall the Special K ad campaign a few years ago that tried to tease women out of their body image concerns through a series of vignettes of fictionalized men, such as a truck driver or a Harley Davidson rider, concerned with their bodies, and saying unexpected lines such as, “I just wish I could fit into my skinny jeans again.” These phrases from men were meant to be comical since it was far from how we see men seeing themselves. The ad concluded with a message that “Men don’t obsess about these things. Why do we?” This was a ridiculous and offensive assertion that did not consider the possibility that many men do aggressively scrutinize their own physiques, but they don’t express it as openly or in the same way that women do.)

It seems to me that part of what could make Cassils’s performance art interesting is that she is experimenting with her body to see what happens. I don’t like this style of body manipulation (why do something so unhealthy for philosophical exploration that my simple brain thinks could just as easily be made through an essay or a drawing?). However, I would respect Cassils’ exploration if she had held herself to her experimental results. The fact that she ignored the unambiguous conclusion that being overly masculine might hurt, too, demonstrates that she was not going to deviate from her feminist argument, regardless of the results. Thus, Cassils’s message, in addition to lacking profound insight, does not possess an openness to discovery that would have justified it living in Cassils’s experimental medium. But at least now the thorn is out of my paw.

Here’s a look at the above mentioned Special K ad campagin. It’s handy because, whether your bias matches mine (that modern Western society minimizes male body issues) or feminists’ (that modern society puts more body pressure on women than men), the ad can serve your purpose.







10 thoughts on “CBC, NOW PRINCIPLE FREE I: CBC Radio Celebrates Pre-Formance Art”

  1. Dear Sethblogs,

    First of all, I commend your interpretation of Cassils’s problematic work as actually representing the bodily pressure and suffering that males endure in Western society. I can see an art historian arguing a similar point of view because there is a wealth of evidence for it. First, as you do, we can interpret her own words about suffering in the process of building muscle in a different, and I think more intuitive and logical, way than she does: that it’s hard being a man, too, because masculinity is associated with a particular body type that not every man naturally possesses. Second, and perhaps more significantly, your interpretation is supported by the masculinized photographs of herself as artwork. In these photos, she goes out of her way to look male. She not only adopts a male posture, thrusting out her pelvis while drawing back her breasts, she also cheats! Unless a side effect of building muscle is growing male organs, then I would say that she has something stuffed in her underpants to make her look more male than her “natural” muscle does alone.

    Regarding your comment about being frustrated by “the way the artists themselves seem to hide from explaining their work,” I passionately disagree. It is not up to artists to interpret. It is up to them to create. Interpreters in the general public and the cognoscenti, then, in turn, find meaning based on (A) the work itself and (B) if available, the artists’ words on it (and other surrounding contextual factors) that can be interpreted, but not treated as gospel. This contention is made stronger by your own example of Cassils, who gave a very shallow and incomplete interpretation of her own work. Any scholar who took her at her word alone and didn’t look at other possibilities and factors would be a poor one, and a useless one at that. Of course the work means more than she says or wants it to mean. Otherwise, why interpret or view the work at all when we can just take the artists’ words for it? Academics would have nothing to do, and art galleries would lose their necessity.

    Again, artists are not to be trusted, only interpreted. The reasons for this are twofold. (A) The artist will not likely be the most articulate spokesperson for his/her art and probably has not considered all of its implications. For example, if I had the honour of asking Mozart what Don Giovanni meant to him, he would either, as per his letters, be frustratingly vague about inspiration, meaning, and musical details, or even unabashedly mercenary, telling me that to him it meant what he was paid for it (before bragging about the new waistcoat he was able to procure from his earnings). (B) The artist’s public interpretation may be swayed by other motivations pertaining to fame, image, money, etc. This was Cassils’s problem: she so wanted it to mean one thing that she pushed that interpretation over a far more valid and obvious one. Don’t trust artists on questions of meaning: then they’d have too much power! They shouldn’t have the final word on their work. How boring that would be. Picasso would agree, as is shown in his impatient response to someone asking what he meant by the individual elements in his famous 1937 painting, Guernica:

    “…this bull is a bull and this horse is a horse… If you give a meaning to certain things in my paintings it may be very true, but it is not my idea to give this meaning. What ideas and conclusions you have got I obtained too, but instinctively, unconsciously. I make the painting for the painting. I paint the objects for what they are.”

    Well said! Leave Picasso alone to paint. Let the scholars and individual viewers extrapolate what meaning they can. But we are nevertheless grateful to him for creating this powerful image.

    Regarding your questioning of the value of Cassils’s work on the basis that she wasn’t doing anything new (“has Cassils taught us anything profound that we couldn’t have achieved from a few moments’ contemplation?”): discussing or reading about something is one thing and may be all you need. But seeing an issue translated into an evocative and powerful image is what art does and has always done, and it can have a powerful impact on some. It doesn’t express anything new perhaps, but it expresses it in a new way, with a new medium. For example, going back to Guernica, Picasso’s pictorial depiction of the German bombing of a Spanish village from 1937: of course we know that this event in history happened because we can read about it in countless history books and look at primary documents in museums. But Picasso’s way of documenting and expressing his opinion of the event is so ugly and at the same time so beautiful as to be incredibly moving. Moreover, scholars have interpreted protest, pain, chaos, defeat, destruction, etc. in his lines and colours that knowledge of the actual event alone might not encapsulate. Not to mention the painting’s aesthetic interest. The painting shows us more than just the actual event, it shows it to us from a particular point of view and in a particular style and medium.

  2. Thank you, Natalie! I enjoyed your commentary a lot as it was both entertaining and informative. First, I was delighted by your agreement with my complaint about Ms. Cassils’s interpretation of her work. Second, I was almost as pleased with your explanation of art criticism, that—in academic circles anyway—the artists’ opinion regarding their own work isn’t actually essential to the meaning. Fair enough. So when artists ask, “What does my art mean to you?” some of them (although I suspect not many) may in fact be intending to modestly admit that they are not sophisticated enough to explain their “work.”

    I hadn’t realized that academics aren’t seriously concerned with the petty thoughts of artists, but I’m happy to be corrected. As I said at the beginning of my post, I am uneducated in the ways of art interpretation, and so I admit that it’s possible that the artists are somehow transcribing artistic intuitions that they don’t really understand, but—with all genuine respect for those who sincerely and seriously study art, sculpture, and performance—my instincts tell me it’s hokum. If the artists’ intentions aren’t relevant, then in a field where the work can be as chaotic or random as the artists’ whim (watch me throw my ear hair at a canvass and see what sticks), where is the meaning coming from? The art critics’ claims of meaning—without the artists to correct them—are not falsifiable. (Just as it’s difficult to disprove psychics who say their ESP doesn’t work when skeptics are around.) I believe that the wine connoisseur world lost much of its credibility when it was shown that, when aficionados are told a wine is expensive (even when it isn’t), they think it tastes better than when they’re told it’s cheap. Similarly, I suspect (correct me if I’m wrong) that, even the most sophisticated art fans will believe a painting says more when they believe that it is by your Picasso than they would upon discovering that it was created by Bob Cassio. (I believe Frasier proved that.)

    If the claim is that art has aesthetic beauty beyond the artists’ intention, I have no objection. Similarly, nature can come up with some lovely scenes to look at without intending them. However, if the art community is claiming a deep meaning in their art, and it’s not coming from the artists’ conscious minds, then who done it?

    (In the case of Mozart, I have much more intuitive respect for possible meaning in his work because it has a nuanced and complicated language shared by many composers. In the art world, the ear hair artist has just invented a language that has no official meaning, and can wait for the art critics who happened to have had a childhood incident with a mean ear hair barber, and, viola, we have a masterpiece!)

  3. Seth:

    Three things:

    (1) It’s not that academics “aren’t seriously concerned with the petty thoughts of artists”; it’s just that scholars take everything in context and with a grain of salt. The artist’s words are just one piece of the big interpretive pie, and not usually the most important one, unless the focus of study is biography, compositional process, or historical study, perhaps.

    (2) Yes, you’re right: art is not science, and so it is not falsifiable like science. I know that you find this fact to be a flaw, but the higher level of subjectivity inherent in art is one of its intrinsic, and, to my mind, most interesting elements. You don’t like it? Go to Science World for some hard answers that are continually subject to falsification, while I hit the art gallery to be moved, puzzled, stimulated, and entertained. I guess it just depends on what inspires you.

    (3) While art itself is not falsifiable, art interpretation, at least in the academic sphere, is nonetheless subject to rigorous peer review. A crucial component of a good interpretation is possessing evidence from both the art itself and contextual factors to back up one’s claim. That’s not to say, of course, that there can’t be different yet equally valid interpretations. I cannot speak for the art critics of mainstream media, but I suspect that the good ones also make sure to ground their claims in something concrete.

  4. (1) That makes sense that the artist’s point of view is not irrelevant to the scholar, just not crucial in regard to what the art means. Wait a minute, that is still mockable! Who, then, was creating the meaning (through the artist)? Flying spaghetti monster? Elvis? Wait a minute, is Santa Claus real, after all?! Hee, hee. 😉

    (2) I accept that subjectivity may be a worthwhile endeavour. I do not demand absolute meaning in everything artistic. We all know that Star Wars (Episodes IV-VI in particular) is the greatest cinematic achievement in history, but I’m sure we all have slightly different reasons for marveling. However, when the art seems completely without content or context, and the artists cannot (or should not) explain it, why should I trust the perspective of the critic who tells me the ear hair sculptures of nostril caverns are soul-moving? Moreover, in experimental art cases where the artists throw things at a canvas, I call that random, and am not going to be tricked by your astrologists’… ahem, art critics’ magical interpretations of randomness.

    (3) Okay, the point that serious peer review tests the analysis of academics with regard to subjective work is persuasive. So it may be that my anti-critic spidey senses that are tingling are responding just to the non-rigorous analysts who annoy me when interviewed on the radio. And/or, it may be, it pains me to contemplate, that I just don’t get it, and so cannot get my near-sighted artistic sensors around this stuff. 🙂

    P.S. Even if you have won the battle via (3) that some wacky art has been vindicated by scholars’ peer-reviewed interpretations, I still maintain that a lot of incomprehensible random hokum is riding the coat tails of that rare good art into the land of undeserved honours. 😉

  5. The fact that there are bad examples of an art form (or of art criticism, or even of art scholarship) is an unfortunate reason to detest it as a whole. Like with everything creative, it’s so subjective and everyone will differ in opinion at least slightly. Moreover, you sometimes have to wade through garbage in search of treasure. But it’s still worth it.

  6. You might be right. Nevertheless, it seems like those rare treasures are providing a lot of cover for a lot of garbage. And I wish the garbage providers were called out more often. But it’s hard to do when they can claim subjectivity-based immunity.

  7. Fine. Point taken. Meanwhile, in belated answer to your first part (1), in which you mock the fact that meaning is not generated solely by the artist: I’m more interested in ideas surrounding the work than the individual personalities of artists. These ideas, to me, are the most interesting aspect of both the art itself and art discourse. The ideas surrounding a work, based partly on the personality and skill of the artist, but also the larger social/historical context, public reception, critical/academic views, and, of course, my own aesthetic and intellectual response to the materials and content of the piece, all combine to form a hearty stew of ideas. Thus, the creation of meaning is the collective enterprise of the public, scholar, critic, artist, and individual viewer.

  8. Interesting. Earlier this week I heard a famous a famous graphic artist, Milton Glaser making a similar point on CBC’s Q that ultimately the meaning of his work is determined by how it is perceived by his audience. So I do see that you’ve captured how some legitimate artists see their work in theory, but in practice I’m still not sure if I get (or like) it. Why do we seem to give so much credit to the artist when a lot of it has do with the community making something of their—in a sense—incomplete work? (It’s a kind of Rorshach art.) This goes back to my original point that the interpreters are conveniently doing the “work” for the artists. The meaning, that the community creates, was never really there, was it? It would be like a contractor providing me with a bunch of wood, and telling me it is what I think it is, and then after I build a house out of it, taking credit for the result. Meanwhile, what happens if we the community makes meaning out of unpiloted imagery, such as the stars in the sky? Is that then art, too?

  9. Seth,

    Your comparison of the artist to the contractor is imbalanced. The artist does not ask society to do the manual creating of the art (except, to some extent, in cases of interactive art): manual, or at least conceptual, creation is the artist’s job, and even in the case of postmodern interactive art, the artist sets up the infrastructure that facilitates the interactions. If you want to compare artists to contractors, then the contractor would still be the one who builds the house, just as the artist creates/sets up a work. Then it is up to the person who pays the contractor, and a larger society of future employers, to judge the value of the contractor’s work and whether he/she deserves praise, referrals, and further patronage. Just like it is up to viewers, patrons, galleries, critics, and scholars to decide the value of the artwork, whether it has meaning, and what that meaning might be.

  10. Nicely put, Natalie. I think that’s a fair reinterpretation of my metaphor. I think this helps to show the contrast in our points of view well. I believe that part of the job of the artist is to provide some sort of meaning (or at least purpose) to their work, while you apparently do not. I think meaning is a significant part of the metaphorical house, while you think it’s not. I think that fairly defines our dispute. I’m sure many art curators would take your side, and if they do, I think that is part of the problem with art conversation: the lack of expectation of (indeed, aversion to) clear communication from artists has created increasingly ridiculous and illegible work.

    I heard a wonderful debate on this subject on April 30 (again on CBC’s Q) in which a philosopher, Alain de Botton, was arguing for a therapeutic purpose to art. While he has been lauded by some in the art world, he has of course also been mauled by many critics who find his approach to limit the free expression of nothingness. When asked why his ideas have been so reviled by many art critics, he replied (deliciously):

    “I’m running headlong into of the great, sacred assumptions of the art world, which is ‘We don’t do didacticism… We don’t do utilitarianism… We are very cautious.’ … [Consider] some of the catalogues these guys produce, [and the] captions they write. They exist in a rarefied world where their work is endlessly elusive. And that’s lovely for them. But, quite frankly, if we don’t change that, [art gallery] culture, as we know it, is going to die.”

    For the record, I sent the following comment into Q for their “letters” section (which they did not publish) in response to host Jian Ghomeshi’s concern that de Botton’s attempt objectify art would destroy the idea of “art for art’s sake”:

    Dear Jian and the Q-raters:

    I enjoyed your debate regarding art conversation so much yesterday that I got off my bus and walked to work so that I would have time to hear the full discussion.

    Alain de Botton is my new hero! He has legitimized my (and I’m sure many others’) annoyance with opaque art discussion. I strongly agree with him that artists (or at least their agents) need to provide us with and/or acknowledge the possibility of some sort of meaning and/or purpose to their work, or what is the point of their existence, and why should governments fund them? The notion of “art for art’s sake,” is, I think, a trick of language. Society came to love art because it made us feel something and/or see something in a new way, so “art” is essentially a short-hand way of saying, “flavoured expression that makes us feel and/or think,” so saying “art for art’s sake” is like saying “nutrition for nutrition’s sake”: there is, in fact, purpose contained right there in the word. (So why can’t we try to dissect that purpose as objectively as we can just as we do musical expression?)

    However, as de Botton hinted, when artists and their curators try so hard to resist context or interpretation, it is clear to me that they are hoping that we will assume brilliance on their random musings that they never intended.

    Seth McDonough

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