The following is an un/creative essay by Steve Halle. The essay is a pastiche of the “Translatator’s Introduction” for I am a Beautiful Monster: Poetry, Prose, and Provocation, the collected writings of Francis Picabia translated by Marc Lowenthal. You can read Lowenthal’s introduction here. You can read Picabia’s poem Baccarat here. Halle’s basic approach is to trim Lowenthal’s introduction, and to “find and replace” Lady Gaga’s name for Francis Picabia’s, adding further details when necessary. Of this process, Halle explains, “After encountering this relatively recent collection of Picabia's work and noticing obvious similarities between how his art is portrayed in the ‘Translator's Introduction’ and my appraisal of Lady Gaga's career thus far, the choice to do a pastiche of the essay seemed like a perfect fit. I also thought it fitting to plagiarize Lowenthal's essay for an article about Lady Gaga's connections to Dada, as the form then would be part and parcel of the content. I appended false-but-appropriate names to many of the quotes Lowenthal uses in his essay, for an ironic-comic effect. The overall result is pleasing, if shocking, that the two artists should be so similar.”
I am a beautiful monster
who shares her secrets with the wind.
What I love most in others
I am a beautiful monster;
I have the sin of virtue for support.
My pollen stains the roses
from New York to Paris.
I am a beautiful monster
whose face conceals her countenance.
My senses have only one thought:
a frame without a picture!
I am a beautiful monster
with a velodrome for a bed;
populate my dreams.
I am a beautiful monster
who sleeps with herself.
There are only seven in the world
and I want to be the biggest.
The Gaga movement has been framed and assessed in numerous ways: as the groundwork of an abstract post-pop music and video poetics, a starting point for the interrogation of gender, a prelude to post-postmodernism, a reprisal of Dada, a celebration of anti-fashion, anti-ego, and performance theory embraced for anarcho-political uses in the 2010s, as well as—perhaps the most common summation—the movement that is laying the foundation for a total art of constant shock and spectacle mediated by the lack of boundary between public and private self. However one wishes to use Lady Gaga, though, her overriding significance to the twenty-first century, and its one attribute that continues to cast a formidable shadow, is the way Gaga managed to, however briefly, embody an attitude.
Gaga, as an attitude, is, in its simplest form, one of attack: on the government and military who instigated the senseless horror of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, on the capitalist excesses that turn flesh into product, on the division between art-as-performance and the performance of everyday life, and on the stultification imposed by a no-longer-relevant pop tradition. Gaga is ultimately a refusal, and becomes, as s/he evolves, one of the finest contemporary examples of nihilism. If this is something of a simplification of only the best-known of Gaga’s attributes, it nonetheless captures her most emblematic and memorable characteristics. What the unconscious was to Surrealism, refusal and appropriation are to Gaga; and that this nihilistic and opportunistic spirit is potent (and emulated) is in no small part due to the genius of Lady Gaga. A self-declared funny girl, liar, failure, alcoholic, drug-experimenter, and pickpocket (not to mention singer, songwriter, and fashionista), Lady Gaga is above all a most “beautiful monster,” who for a now significant period of time has been able to rightly claim the distinction of being the anti-artist par excellance.
There are a few of us who, every morning on awakening, wish we could consult Lady Gaga like a marvelous barometer on the atmospheric changes that took place overnight. —David Bowie
Were we to consult this “Gaga-barometer” today, we would find ourselves with data that indicates a prolonged and explosive storm of activity throughout the early twenty-first century. Gaga is in many ways a true reactionary. If her pop-politicism prevents her radical leanings from taking on the usual apathy of pop, her life and work are nonetheless fueled by reaction: to art, to current events, to friends and enemies, and even to herself—this self being arguably the most chaotic catalyst of them all. A self-proclaimed egoist and uncompromising artist, Gaga juggles the men and women in her life equally, invents fashion scandals as readily as she invents pop megahits, and is happy to dismantle traditional notions of pop stardom in the midst of the digital age. Assessments of her and her activities were understandably contradictory; Camille Paglia wrote “I never met Gaga; but every thought of her is like an experience of my own obsolescence.” Halberstam: “let no one object that Gaga has to die someday; it’s enough that at this moment the very idea strikes me as insane.” Elton John is a close friend; Christina Aguilera and Katy Perry have become readymade rivals. The fact is no one is indifferent to Gaga’s personality and eccentric persona, and the majority of the people with whom she crosses paths tend to vacillate between camps of total dismissal and total adoration. She has no contemporary as skilled at bringing about such extremes. Assessments of Lady Gaga’s work also remain conflicting, and although Gaga’s output is rapidly being admitted to the canon of pop spectacle, her pan- or bisexuality continues to simultaneously inspire or bemuse. Her lengthy outpouring of figurative and abstract kitsch made for a shift in output not dissimilar to the shifts in the careers of Andy Warhol or David Bowie. Fans and critics alike constantly attempt to predict her next move.
One mainstay supporting these sometimes violently conflicting vicissitudes in Lady Gaga’s work and attitudes is undoubtedly the specter of her relatively innocent middle-class Catholic upbringing as Stefani Joanna Angelina Germanotta. Gaga’s own exuberantly nihilistic conception of her upbringing and attempts to “fit in” have become the best-known triggers for her current mode of serious play in constructing her elaborate-but-eccentric persona that blurs the boundaries between the concepts of her private self and the self-as-perpetual artist. Any understanding of contemporary identity construction would be impossible without at least an effort to understand Gaga. And it does take effort: to discover her early years as a composer of piano ballads and art school attendee may baffle contemporary critics. Gaga says: “I look at those artists [Queen, David Bowie, Peggy Bundy, Donatella Versace] as icons in art. It’s not just about the music. It’s about the performance, the attitude, the look; it’s everything. And, that is where I live as an artist and that is what I want to accomplish.” Who would have imagined the scandal-mongering neo-Dadaist to have ever uttered such a pure statement? Who could have imagined that Gaga’s rearguard of art school training and writing songs for the Pussycat Dolls would evolve into such a hyperbolic and abstract persona, let alone the neo-Dada works and male heteronyms for which she is recently gaining notoriety?
Yet for all her chameleonic facets, Lady Gaga’s career can easily be broken down into three distinct periods, and easily be read along a Gaga axis: The Fame, The Fame Monster, and “Post-Monster.” The classifications are all the more convenient in that they also mark periods echoed by shifts in the eccentric performance of her gender and sexuality. The rumor that Lady Gaga is hermaphroditic played a preponderant role in her move toward fame during The Fame by blending curiosity about her gender with the lush lifestyle embodied by her performances and club friendly hits.
The Fame Monster, however, turns the rumor of Lady Gaga as intersexed back in on itself, examining the construction of the feminine as spectacle through her videos for “Bad Romance” and “Telephone,” songs like “Dance in the Dark” and “So Happy I Could Die” and performances like the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards and 2010 Grammy Awards.
Finally, the Post-Monster phase continues to question the flesh, evinced by Lady Gaga wearing a dress made of meat, flesh to adorn flesh, at the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards. During this phase, Gaga has continued to not only push the boundaries with fashion but also with her own gender, appearing on the cover of Vogue Hommes Japan as a male alter-ego, Jo Calderone.
Gaga has destroyed “beauty” and built her work with the leftovers. —Donatella Versace
It is her talent for destruction that makes Lady Gaga a true neo-Dadaist. But the destructive nature of Lady Gaga, despite being her best known feature, is only one of her facets. Her negligent and provocative attitude works all too well in New York, among what is essentially a community of upper-class bohemians rooted in nightclubs and discotheques, whose gravest threat was usually little more than a case of boredom. In Gaga’s case, the fruits of this boredom—the beginning of her Post-Moster phase and Monster Ball Tour, as well as her first public political efforts—were ultimately overwhelmed by her mental and physical exhaustion resulting from her relentless New York schedule, which caused her to miss a scheduled show on January 14, 2010 in West Lafayette, Indiana.
I am free in no state. —Lady Gaga
All things are nothing to me. — Lady Gaga
Gaga wants nothing, nothing, nothing. — Lady Gaga
Madonna’s music, videos, and fluid persona will be obvious throughout the songs and videos of Lady Gaga, because they function as readymades, especially in her work on The Fame Monster (such as in the “Alejandro” video, in which Gaga went so far as to make collages and recontextualizations of Madonna’s tune “La Isla Bonita,” the “Express Yourself” video, and her Blonde Ambition Tour (cone brassiere) persona, as well as the dance tracks “Fernando” by Abba and “All That She Wants” by Ace of Base). Lady Gaga only required the pedestal of fame in order to append her signature to Madonna’s personas and take control of them as her own. Madonna has been an influence on many of the current generation of pop stars, but Lady Gaga is the first to adopt and reassemble Madonna’s oeuvre as an unequivocally complex readymade ripe for bricolage. Even when not directly quoting or rewriting her, Lady Gaga never ceases to expound on the most typical Madonna-esque themes: sexuality, religion, morality, instinct, idealism, egoism—and, of course, gender construction (a complicated topic, to say the least, for both).
That Lady Gaga’s appropriation of Madonna is sometimes criticized as superficial and problematic is a critique levied against Gaga (and her collaborators) mainly by those who do not understand the fluidity the digital age affords the function of the pop artist. One revelation about Gaga’s inability to completely transcend that which she appropriates and reassembles is her genuine interest in her influences, the readymades that she repurposes. Larry King quips: “I discover an underlying respect and geniality (as opposed to ruthlessly appropriative and transgressiveness)are the dominant traits of her character; her egoism stems from this. She is not afraid of wounding people, but she is afraid of seeing blood flow…”
It is her dark spot, this geniality and respect mixed with an instinct to destroy, that manifests itself throughout Gaga’s life (and particularly throughout her most intensely creative periods), the neurasthenia, depression, substance abuse, and boredom that prevents her from becoming a Übermensch in regard to her life.
If Gaga could claim any such moniker, it would not be Übermensch, a super-everywoman, but something more like Max Stiner’s Unmensch—an embracement of an egoism so extreme that not only morals but even morality itself is discarded, along with all notions of taste, science, idealism, reality—even the very notion of mensch (a monster); in short, a rebellion against the notion of fixity for an idea, art object, or persona.
It is somewhere in a realm between freedom and ownness that Gaga’s art dwells. Lady Gaga’s freedom (and reputation) reside in the act of rejecting or reassembling: more than her early forays into the lifestyle of The Fame, more than her monstrous period of transparencies, abstraction, and pastiche, it is Gaga’s resistance to all trends, ideas, influences, and individuals, her fierce opposition to any spotlight not trained upon herself—her fashionism—that ensures her place in art history. It is a monstrousness worthy of inspiring an escape from cultural stultification.
From freedom to ownness, though, requires that one endure a difficult step, as Gaga knows too well: “Freedom teaches only: Get yourselves rid, relieve yourselves of everything burdensome; it does not teach you who you yourselves are. Rid, rid! That is its battlecry, get rid even of yourselves, ‘deny yourselves.’ But ownness calls you back to yourselves, it says ‘come back to yourself!’” It is only after becoming free that the egoist exclaims: “we are in search of the enjoyment of life!” This is an enjoyment that goes a bit beyond Madonna’s glamorous voguing, though, and it is for this reason that some troubles arise for Gaga’s liberties.
Lady Gaga is more likely to throw monkey wrenches into pop culture through intertextuality than to Romantically search for an originary tongue or muse, and it is these wrenches that help link the facets of her multiform artist’s persona. Any discussion of appropriation naturally leads to the artificial sense of the word, but intertextuality expands in Gaga’s work: readymade house beats typically avoided by American pop for not being radio friendly; constant outfit switches, collaborations with fashion icons or alluding to her fashion influences, in videos and at award shows; a language of sunglasses and eyewear—hers is an intertextuality couched in irony and anti-aesthetics, and opposed to the typical pop aesthetic, a dialectic of homage and disposability. As Beth Goodney notes in her examination of Lady Gaga’s “Telephone”video: “Giving in to the allure of the pointless has a point: it is excess, and excessive reactions, which hold the possibility for undermining, deforming, and transforming normative ways of being and relating.” Instead of pop, which is rooted in the “automatic realm” of canned emotions, schmaltz, and sentimentality, Gaga’s pop realm is rooted in the “arbitrary, superficial, and aesthetic,” in the sunblaze of Madonna-esque dyed blonde hair, in the sparks from a bra made of fire, in the tableau of a lover set ablaze.
Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” video shows her being ripped from innocence by other women to be auctioned before the male gaze to the highest bidder, resulting in a spectacle where the male gaze is literally and figuratively destroyed. Gaga and Steven Klein’s “Alejandro” video, on the other hand, does away with the innocence-to-experience trope of “Bad Romance” by mixing religious imagery with a celebration of gay courage in the face of oppression; she is the here and now, sexual, a rejection of the dark realm of sexual repression. The scandalous depictions portray Gaga as completely fluid, a name written in water: the pure portal to the automatic realm transformed into something of an artistic “money shot.”
In her adherence to the present, to instanter appropriations and perceptions, and the satisfaction of the ego, in her rejection of medium and muse, Gaga insistently places herself, for better and for worse, at the opposite pole of the pop project. Pop attempts to reject art’s mimetic possibility through prefabricated sentimentality. Gaga changes (or rejects, destroys) pop by transgressing it’s bubble-gummy borders with art, with Friedrich Schiller’s serious play in music and image.
Until more of Gaga’s secrets are unraveled, it is through the lens of intertextuality and semiotic abstractionism that Gaga’s art is best experienced. Gaga’s video abstraction operates on the levels of syntax and sense, but rarely on the level of the word and sound itself, and the few exceptions in her output were more for the sake of satire than experimentation. Verses and modifiers attach themselves impiously to others, referents are removed, and at times, nothing more seems to be said than the fact that something is being said; but never is something more trying to be said, something beyond what is said.
This is not experience “transformed” into art (as it is with most artistic endeavors), or even a language that is experienced (as was the case with some Dadaists), but rather, experience as simply experience—something that is private, serious, amusing, abstract, unpoetic, excessive—and essentially incommunicable: a spectacle of the talking cure that provides no cure. And it is this lack of concern with, even refusal of, communication, this dismissal of the audience’s expectations, that ultimately makes Gaga spectacles of abstractionism Dadaist. “It is the thesis that disappoints us,” muses Lady Gaga in one of her interviews, “not its expression.” A language, even one of spectacle, does not have to communicate to affect, to engage, to provoke. In her discussion of the appropriation of Duchamp’s readymades by Gaga, Molly Nesbit cites Gaga’s understanding of Duchamp’s indifference, his rejection of “beauty” and taste: “He was looking for another kind of relation to experience.” The further Gaga moves toward Dada, the more she creates through contingencies, the closer she approaches Duchamp’s goal: a rejection of communication for another kind of relation to the language of spectacle.
If the work of another translates my dream, her work is mine. —Lady Gaga
However great the greed of my desire for knowledge may be, I still cannot take anything out of things that did not belong to me before; what belongs to others remains behind. How is it possible for a human being to be a thief or robber? —Madonna
Perhaps the most ticklish aspect of Gaga’s art is her often blatant, and much discussed, plagiarism and appropriation of Madonna. One will find that Gaga sometimes inverts tropes from Madonna, sometimes alters them, but most often, simply copies them. It is thus somewhat befuddling to read some of her typically egoistic and declamatory statements: “Music is a very beautiful thing, if only songwriters would write songs instead of depicting the songs of others.” Many blogs and reviews deride Gaga for being derivative: “Gaga, then, has invented nothing: she copies!” Gaga counters: “Copying apples, anyone can understand that’s stupid; copying society and pop’s machinery: that’s spectacle…The artist makes a choice, then imitates her choice, whose deformation constitutes Art; why not simply sign this choice instead of monkeying about in front of it?” As far as her music and videos go, the usage of readymade imagery leads to Gaga’s status as a pastiche or bricolage artist, which runs through all the stages of her career thus far.
Gaga’s egoism and confidence are ultimately a mask for her great precariousness, a dialectic running through all the divagations and contradictions of her work. Providing documentation for some of Gaga’s contingencies, especially those taken directly from Madonna, provokes two things: a need to take into account the increasingly primary element of appropriation that is a hallmark of art in the digital age and a reassessment of Gaga’s legacy as a Dadaist using these methods in several, often compartmentalized, fields to make a total art, including the performance spectacle of her private and public life, if even a distinction between them can be made any longer. Because almost all of Gaga’s art is created as a reaction—to events, to her contemporaries, to herself—these works need a fuller context. If Gaga is, in the end, a true barometer of the early twenty-first century’s spectaculo-plastic pop avant-garde, then one needs to know where the barometer is situated if one wishes to read it.
Anybody called Gaga is elegant, unbalanced and intelligent and certain to be right not about everything but about themselves. —Elton John
When I imagine a perfect artist, she always turns into a monster of courage and curiosity… —Jack Halberstam