Posted by: Mark Nielsen | August 18, 2013

Lady Gaga As Art: Is the Dada Mama Growing Up?

Lady Gaga, in a new performance art and/or promotional piece, in support of the Marina Abramovic Institute.


I’m sure at some point I have publicly stated that, while I respect the creative instincts of Lady Gaga, I will never care enough to feature her at Marking Time, nor expend any serious energy figuring out if she is important.

It now appears I have to re-think that position.

Because Lady G– along with Jay-Z and a handful of other “pop” juggernauts — appears to be digging deeper and dabbling in Performance Art as a new field of exploration and influence. The Gaga Girl is training with Serbian-born performance artist and teacher Marina Abramovic. She’s working in longer and longer forms. And she’s walking through forests naked, in nothing but boots. (See the video here, but be aware it’s NSFW).

Here is the Wall Street Journal’s take on it, including some interview material with the communications director for Marina A’s institute, regarding Lady Gaga and the Kickstarter campaign to get Marina’s thing rolling.

Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not sure I like this. I’m just reporting, here. I’m curious  but tentative, partly because there are plenty of posers out there in the performance art field, and there always have been. AND because, since the very notion of performance art is so far-reaching, exploratory, vague, and subjective, there is always the danger of a bad chemistry experiment, artistically speaking.

You know the bad, blow-your-thumb-off chemical mix I am referring to, right? So-called “star” with the intelligence or integrity of of a fruit fly –but plenty of money and a yen for reinventing him- or herself –attempts to collaborate with a serious artist of much greater breadth or depth, to learn the techniques and apply them to her own “art” (heretofore seen as lightweight or merely “popular”).

Think “Madonna goes Kabbalah”. Or yoga. Or Evita. Or tries out acting AT ALL.

Or think of an actor who writes a bad novel, but is indulged by others who know there is a niche market to sell it into. The resulting product may be a work of lasting substance and worth, or it may just be a new kind of hobbyist-level trashing of some great tradition, an attempt to achieve legitimacy with a new audience or new set of peers– an attempt that ultimately and often falls flat.

Also, there is a pretentiousness in the “art world” that needs to be acknowledged here, too.

Part of the appeal and importance of pop culture is that it is sometimes a reasonable and affordable counterpoint to the unwarranted elevation of some art or artists beyond their actual display of talent. These hacks are raised up (usually by other even less talented, but quietly-invested, money-grabbers and/or coattail-riders) to some ivory tower status that they do not deserve. The flashy public pedestal is not democratic in the least, though.

Face it: many fashions and trends –whether emerging from Europe, North America, or Asia– are inherently elitist and often downright dumb, from a pragmatic perspective. Yes, perhaps they push the outside of the envelope creatively, or philosophically. But then again, often we find a few years after the fact that, in reality, the Emperor (of a certain movement or style) in fact is wearing no clothes, and probably never was in the first place. I recently rewatched Robert Altman‘s film Pret-a-Porter, for example. The artful way he poked holes in the class-ism and warped priorities of the high-fashion industry and/or media is still quite brilliant, almost twenty years later.

I’m not saying Lady Gaga (already a fashion and music industry powerhouse) is doing one or the other, whether she’s a serious performance artist or a poser. Frankly, I don’t know her body of work all that well, so I shouldn’t speak on the specifics of what’s been working or not. But from a distance it seems like she’s been doing a form of performance art all along. Since the start of her career, and the intensive management of her public image, she has been very forthright about calling herself a “creation”, a “figure”, an art product of some sort.

Her face, her hair, her body… these are just some of the “canvases” she is painting upon. And her music has already at times reflected upon the odd relationship between pop culture and “high” culture, or celebrity and art. The song and video for Paparazzi are the prime examples I am thinking of here.

…. ahem… Getting away with murder, is she?

Even with a casual viewing of the 7:11 music video/short film above, I see VISUAL references to Rococo architecture, to the designer Dior, to several Hitchcock films, to Mel Brooks, to Frankenstein, to the German silent movie classic “Metropolis” by Fritz Lang, and to Mickey Mouse. Underneath all that I’m sure there is plenty more, from both the high road and low road.

Those who follow Marking Time at all will perhaps recall that I’m a big fan of Laurie Anderson [click for my most recent mention of this groundbreaking violinist, writer, singer, composer, dramaturg, etc.], . I see Anderson (along with David Byrne, Peter Gabriel, and a few others… maybe Madonna, though I’m hesitant there) as one of the early bridge-builders between the music world and the visual/multimedia/theatrical/high art world. She takes on Moby Dick, Nietzsche, George W. Bush, and John Cage, throws out the rule book, and risks either blowing your mind or boring you to tears. If Laurie didn’t set the height of Lady Gaga’s current bar, she has certainly at least been a consistent voice over the past three or four decades regarding how to integrate music, politics, literature, film, high-tech, and visual arts in an exciting, genre-bending (and blending) way.

So the jury’s still out on how Lady Gaga’s latest turn will turn out. She probably has the “chops” to do it right. But the risk of a big loss when an artist plays craps with those legitimacy/popularity dice is substantial. Middle America, at least, has a pretty low tolerance for the vagaries of high art, and a short attention span when things start looking or sounding THIS weird.

Probably the fact that we’re talking about it at all means M’Lady has already achieved most of her own goals here. Whether Marina Abramovic — her teacher, friend, guru and partner in this new venture –is The Real Deal as well?  … I’d say that remains to be seen. Probably. But we’ll see.


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