I watched and enjoyed the Bravo reality competition Work of Art. It, like its fellow Magical Elves productions, managed to teach me a bit about the subject at hand. For example, among the show’s contestants was a performance artist named Nao Bustamante. Not understanding performance art, I usually gave Bustamante’s work a pass. However, the judges felt differently, and despite Bustamante’s seniority over the rest of the show’s cast and her apparent status as the show’s resident troublemaker, she got the boot the in fourth episode. One judge, Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, seemed particularly irked by Bustamante’s decision to respond to the Andres Serrano-inspired “shocking art” challenge with a performance as some kind of incontinent, Matthew Barney-esque bag lady. Rohatyn called it “a scatological mess,” I remember. But the problems seemed to lie less in the performance itself so much as Bustamante’s explanation of it. In short, she couldn’t say what she was trying to do. And while I’m sure many artists and art buffs might quibble with the notion that an artist must have a specific intent with their work, Rohatyn’s criticism stuck with me. It turns out that I too may be someone who also thinks that good art can’t come from someone who has no plan, no reason for doing a given thing, no justification for making a viewer observe their creation.
I thought of Nao Bustamante and her bag of shit today when reading blogs about MTV’s Video Music Awards and seeing that Lady Gaga wore another meat dress. I’m not breaking any ground by claiming that Lady Gaga’s schtick incorporates a lot of performance art and that it’s sometimes more performance art than anything else, but I usually let her antics slide because she’s doing something unique — unpleasant, weird and challenging to mainstream values — and somehow still winning the hearts worldwide. That, and “Paparazzi” was a near-perfect pop song with a kickass music video. But the meat dress — the item of Slim Jim couture — I have issues with. The dress, which seems to be an updated version of what she sported recently on the cover of Vogue Hommes Japan seemed like an attention-getter and nothing more. It didn’t seem to have any connection with her work so far or anything else she brought to the show — like, say, the space princess-looking Alexander McQueen dress she wore on the red carpet or the retinue of discharged gay soldiers that accompanied her — and I felt like she must have worn it to stir up controversy more than anything else. (Hasn’t she thought about her vegetarian fans? Is she criticizing the meat industry? The fashion industry? Her sexy image, playing off the connection between lustful carnality and the more mundane kind you see in butcher shops? At least she has to be doing something with the matching meat handbag and the term spam purse, right?)
I might feel differently if Gaga had given any reason for why she wore such an objectionably eye-catching dress, but she didn’t. On The Ellen DeGeneres Show yesterday, she offered only this Sarah Palin-worthy string of nonsense:
Well, it is certainly no disrespect to anyone that is vegan or vegetarian. As you know, I am the most judgment-free human being on the earth… However, it has many interpretations but for me this evening. If we don’t stand up for what we believe in and if we don’t fight for our rights, pretty soon we’re going to have as much rights as the meat on our own bones. And, I am not a piece of meat.That doesn’t mean anything. Not a word of it.
Saying something is not disrespectful doesn’t make it not disrespectful. Saying an action has many interpretations doesn’t justify it. And claiming that “if we don’t fight for our rights, pretty soon we’re going to have as much rights as the meat on our own bones” strikes me as especially bizarre, given the gradual widening of the American waistline. (Do heavy people enjoy greater liberty?) Gaga’s explanation of the meat dress stunt forces any thoughtful person to conclude either that she had no idea what she was doing or she wore it just for attention and couldn’t even half-ass a phony explanation — not even to Ellen, who is not exactly the most hard-hitting of interviewers.
I don’t feel that an artist needs to spell out everything they were trying to do, because mystery enhances the viewer’s experience of a given art piece. To take the point back to Work of Art, I’m not sure Andres Serrano has ever explained his piece “Piss Christ”, and its ambiguity led to an interesting back-and-forth on what it could mean on Work of Art, to say nothing about the uproar it caused back when it debuted. But if the artist does chose to open his or her mouth, the words coming out had better make sense. If they don’t, smart people will think less of the blabbering artist than they do of the one who keeps quiet.
As for Lady Gaga, I feel the meat dress puts her in an awkward position, professionally speaking, because she now has to not only one-up herself but also do so without sounding like more of an attention-seeker. I think Lady Gaga is a talented singer-songwriter who has eye for spectacle and who has the potential to affect positive social change, even if I mostly agree with Camille Paglia that her tendency to cloak herself with the cause of gay rights and misfit liberation is tiresome and sometimes even manipulative. But this latest stunt has me rethinking Gaga-ness, for what once seemed fresh now stinks like raw meat that spoiled beneath bright stagelights.