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CBC, NOW PRINCIPLE FREE SERIES:
I: CBC RADIO CELEBRATES PRE-FORMANCE ART (you are here)
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.
CBC, NOW PRINCIPLE FREE SERIES:
I: CBC RADIO CELEBRATES PRE-FORMANCE ART (you were just here)