Disclaimer: This post has a wealth of factual, aesthetic, and wincingly bad etiquette errors in it. Chiefly among them is that I never got around to discussing why it is I self-identify as ‘crazy,’ which to many people is, rightfully so, a slur against the mentally ill (which I am) and continues to be used after a long and horrifying history to abuse us. I finally made a video about it here. I also failed to do ANY even cursory research about Joan Jett to realize that she herself was following in the footsteps of and modeling herself on Susan Kay ‘Suzi’ Quatro, the first female bass player to become a major rock star and break down that barrier for women in rock ’n’ roll. I had no inkling of her, like much of pop culture. Now I do.
There are no doubt even more errors in this article which I just stream-of-consciousness wrote after listening to the song I discuss at the beginning. I’m leaving the article up to (a) show that I get stuff wrong, mostly to myself but also to others, (b) keep myself humble and remind myself to fact check, and (c) be real.
Also Ms. Edith Piaf, I think you are and were brilliant and vibrant and that’s what really matters. Your awesomeness continues to shine.
Les blouses blanches
…‘The White Coats.’ It's the title of an Edith Piaf song but the version I glommed onto and love is by Martha Wainwright, who won me over with her song ‘Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole,’ which she later admitted was about her father, the esteemed folk singer Loudon Wainwright III who has had… family difficulties in a sprawlingly complex and very talented musical family which also includes his son and Martha’s extroardinary brother Rufus—but also her duet with Snow Patrol ‘Set the Fire to the 3rd Bar.’ She did a whole album of Edith Piaf covers, and there are a bunch of videos of her doing them live in very Dresden Dolls/Amanda Palmeresque cabaret fashions. One of the live shows she’s performing with her (now dead) great mother Kate McGarrigale playing accordion.
Kate McGarrigale also wrote this beautiful song ‘Proserpina’ (Romanized name of Persephone) from the point of view of the mother (erroneously referred to as ‘Hera’ in the lyrics?!), and Martha covered it after the death of her mother and there’s a gorgeous video of that online too.
But initially I was just going to write about how I’m kind of not actually learning French because I’m stubbornly bad at learning. I keep trying all these ways to trick myself into it like ‘Duolingo’ which is kind of a game and very fun. And then also watching familiar movies I’ve seen countless times dubbed in French, and ‘Amélie’ with the subtitles off, and playing an unbelievably addictive resource management game called ‘Sunken Secrets’ with the language set to ‘Français.’ And also Audio Hijacking all of Martha Wainwright's live performances of Edith Piaf covers and tossing them into my current shuffle playlist.
So I’m not learning French. Not one bit. If I had to speak it or write it I would fail 1000% of the time. However, I’m gradually recognizing what many French words mean through repetition. Sort of like how I can recognize someone’s face but not put a name to it, and know the context of how I know them but not even be able to give you the first letter of their name. And I’m listening today to Martha singing ‘Les blouses blanches’ and the creepy piano in the background…
…and I suddenly am laughing my ass off because I realize that Edith Piaf was CRAZYCAKES and instead of imploding with it she waved that flag from the ramparts and became a beloved cultural icon that still resonates today. Like wearing her scarlet ‘C’ for all us other Crazycakes people to also fade out of the woodwork and, say, cover her song laughing madly to the accordion and applauding madly because we all recognize that men in white coats and women in white dresses with hands that sang and flowers with light all around them are exactly the same. I’m not crazy, it’s that hand that’s laughing, and we will love each other forever. HAHAHAHAHAA!!!!
And we’re all things in Edith’s white-dressed dream: the men in the coats, the woman in the dress interred three years for being crazy, the hand, the flowers, the light, the laughter, the crowd, the French people, their culture, the music, the musicians, Martha Wainwright, her dead mother, the accordion, Edith’s own death, all the decades between and yet the memories and words and music living on and on, because we are all still interred here on this Earth with our cousins and grandmothers and the bones of our ancestors and wisps of zygotes of the future cyberbarons of thought to which our laughter and words may echo or dissolve.
Je ne pas une pipe
She is not crazy/she is crazy. This is a drawing of a pipe, and it is not a pipe, and yet it is a pipe in that it is a representation of a pipe and the word ‘pipe’ is also a representation of a pipe, and images are treacherous and so are words.
(For the next part there are deliberately not images, so you must dredge up, dust off and use your imagination, whatever is left of it.)
Here is a Campbell’s tomato soup can. It is like millions of others, in pantries and landfills everywhere. It is not art. Here are the drawings of the current design of the can, which both are and are not art; they were made by people as options to advertise and inform, but will be mass produced if effective or thrown away and forgotten if not.
Here is a photograph of the can on a grocery aisle. It is not art. Here is a photograph of the can, dented but not broken, label peeling, covered in ash and dust, after a natural disaster or a pollutant leak, next to a broken doll. It causes an emotional reaction. It is art. Here is a painting of many cans of Campbell’s tomato soup. It is art. Here is a photograph of that painting in a gallery made by an ordinary camera phone of a tourist. It is not art.
Here is a comparison of all these different images side by side, with captions. Is it art? Here is an article listing these different iterations and contexts of that same image. Is it art? Here is an article asking, “What is art? Context? Emotional reaction? Rarity? Zeitgeist? A congruence of factors? The eye of the beholder? The ease of the creation? The intention of the creator? The message or theme? The conveyance of that to the beholder? The value of that theme, with or without context? The rebelliousness against the mainstream, the taboo, the Banksy, the possibly illegal or banned or censored or scandalous? The scarlet A of Art assigned by the masses? The smell of burning books, the death threats perhaps carried out, ‘Je Suis Charlie’?” Is the article, itself, art?
Here is a movie about the pornography hearings Congress held about Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl.’ Here is the quote about ‘knowing pornography when I see it.’ This poem would not have been well known if not for these hearings, the Fahrenheit 451 of burning pages and incandescent outrage. ‘Howl,’ we understand now, is most definitely art.
But do we ‘know’ ‘art’ when we witness it?
Here is John Cage’s ‘4'33".’ It is four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. It has been arranged for multiple instruments and performed many times in many places. It is, we know, art.
Here is a flash mob orchestra performing the opening theme of ‘Star Wars,’ strategically placed in many places of a square in Germany, captured by many cameras, as well as the reactions of the surprise audience, from delight to disinterest to irritation at needing to be somewhere else in a hurry. Is it art?
Here is a urinal, taken out of context and placed in an art museum. Is it art?
Here is a block of 1950s urban concrete housing for St. Louis, from the architect of the World Trade Center towers and the St. Louis International Airport Main Terminal, meant to address the problems of poverty, crime, racial segregation, homelessness, gentrification and urban decay. Within 15 years after completion the doomed housing project was nearly abandoned, decaying, dangerous, a crime-infested neighborhood of boarded-up buildings, failed lights and elevators and broken windows, its sad architect lamenting, “I never thought people were that destructive.” The number of factors contributing to the failure and eventual demolition of Pruitt-Igoe through the first half of the 1970s were manifold. Was this art? It had all the ambition and talent and vision and desire to be art. It met chaos theory, and died a most infamous, protracted, violent and ignoble death.
Here is a question: is the question ‘Is it art?’ a waste of time and energy? Are there more interesting and better questions that could be asked if that question were led away and given a drink of something soothing, and we agreed to not ask it, and ask what else we could ask instead?
What other questions might rush to fill the mighty vacuum created by such a weighty, overasked and overblown question? ‘Is it useful?’ ‘Does it make an impact, on someone, somewhere, no matter whom or what their privilege or socio-economic status?’ ‘Does it fulfill an aesthetic as well as informational or practical function?’ ‘Does it reveal something about ourselves to ourselves, perhaps even only privately?’ ‘Does it invigorate?’ ‘Does it PROVOKE?’ ‘WHAT does it provoke?’ ‘After witnessing this art, do people mill around, drink overpriced glasses of wine and go home and do nothing different, or are there niggling seeds that oh-so-gently alter choices in the days and years to come, or are we haunted forever, or do we experience a frisson right there and immediately make a life-changing decision?’
Cleolinda Explains it All
‘What is the impact of this?’ …not just on the perhaps only one person who is impacted by it, perhaps only the paint-addled starving artist or trolley-squashed vagabond-looking maddened (and ironically atheist) architect of the still-unfinished cathedral, or the one person who is still thinking an hour later about that one line from the film, or is in a grocery aisle suddenly seized with inspiration for no easily discerned reason other than a culmination of multiple chaotic forces—the impact that that one person has on others, with their words and choices.
Sometimes it isn’t the initial thing itself. Do I listen to Edith Piaf performing Edith Piaf? Well, only one song, ‘Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien,’ and it’s because of ‘Inception’ (which furthers my point that it wasn’t a direct impact of Edith herself but her impact on Christopher Nolan and his fielding her into me with such an impact). I feel I should love Joan Jett more than I do, because she metaphorically actually cleared roads where there weren’t any, roads that allowed P!nk to exist, and I adore P!nk, and I have a playlist of her songs that hit home so hard for me it’s like she’s writing from the back of my brain somewhere and laughing her ass off the whole time. She motorcycles up and down the now well-paved roads drinking straight from the scotch bottle “SO WHAT?!” at 4 a.m., but without Joan Jett and the Runaways there wouldn’t have been those roads and I might never have even heard of P!nk and she might just be in a trailer somewhere, as angry and silent as I am, and the world would be beggared by this.
‘Twilight’ fascinates me. Not the books. Not the movies. What enriched my life was Cleolinda Jones’s deconstructions (although they weren’t called that because the buzzword hadn’t hit its stride) as well as M15M versions of the movies, freely available on LiveJournal (yup, that’s how old this stuff is) and what I learned there. It was because of what Cleolinda wrote about ‘Twilight’ that (1) I actually learned what it meant to be a feminist and immediately and loudly became one, marrying my anger to where it was supposed to go, (2) (at the same time) read Gavin de Becker’s ‘The Gift of Fear,’ and (3) subsequently took rape prevention and self-defense courses, and these were the first things that did a damn thing about healing my rape/child sexual abuse/sexual assault and self-esteem issues.
That’s not all her deconstructions did, and as far as I’m concerned the writing she did about that series, its context, its impact, what it says about both feminism and women’s own fear of it, our own reactionary and often unconscious choices, our persistent love affair with toxic masculinity and this subtly and often overtly disturbing narrative we keep on repeat without thinking about it—it’s a masterwork and ought to be published and discussed in scholarly circles. She is hilarious, brilliant, self-effacing and loves the series for its ridiculousness as well as the cultural response, like pixy sticks for her brain, and is incredibly open about her own unreliable narrative while she simultaneously deconstructs and with amazing deftness points to the things that led to ‘Twilight’ with more awareness and depth than I’m sure Stephenie Meyer had, just responding to the same thing all the ankle-tattoo fans also responded to. Ms. Meyer tapped the live wire that was our secret affair, our love and shame, the weird corner of culture that feminism is frustrated with, and feminists are ashamed of when they find in their own personal baggage and angrily hide with lots of bluster. But it’s THERE. And Cleo explains it all, with such a humorous touch that the potential furious jealousy I could have felt at ‘Twilight’ getting published and making absolute pots of money melted away when I understood it not as a series of poorly-written teen fantasies but an almost inevitable cultural phenomenon with a long history of influencing forces.
It became fascinating to me, much more fascinating than even looking at a picture of not-a-pipe. The stories behind the many, many whys of ‘Twilight.’ Not just why it exists but why it was and continues to be responded to not just by people who love it but people who hate it, and people who write fanfiction about it and then turn it into books that then become problematic cultural phenomenons that spark tons of deconstructions and conversations about BDSM culture and abuse and places where these can, yes, overlap; and also a film and sequels and stuff.
But seriously, because this is the question that will never die even if you know by heart all the words to ‘50 Ways to Kill Your Zombie Lover,’ (don’t forget the refrain: ‘Klaatu barada nikto’) is this that you are reading art? Is there an Art at the end of this book?
Absolutely, definitively, unequivocally not. Nope. Non.