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Monday, March 7, 2011

Manifesting Love: "Born This Way" and Surrealist Art

By Willow Sharkey

The following piece is the seventh in our series on Lady Gaga’s video for “Born This Way.” Click here for our previous analyses of the video.

Lady Gaga’s single “Born This Way” emerges into a world where questions of who may love whom are far from settled. Indeed, cultural anxieties regarding ambiguous gender identity, or any sort of otherness that falls outside clearly defined binaries, continue to so pervade the social body that the bullying of queer youth has become a sad emblem of recent history. “Born This Way,” then, is a deliberately queer anthem, ostensibly made to joyfully empower every “othered” being.

The word love repeatedly punctuates the lyrics of “Born This Way,” underscoring several different sites where love may operate. Gaga proclaims that it doesn’t matter if one loves an intimate partner or God, tells listeners to love themselves and their friends, says that she loves her life and this record, and that love requires faith. How love is incarnated is not of importance, rather the expression of love is paramount, integral to liberation; it also requires bravery, vigilance, and commitment.

Joan Miró, Love, (1925)

By highlighting an array of sites where love may be realized, “Born This Way” complicates the expression of love in mainstream pop music. It doesn’t celebrate typical boy-girl love and longing; rather, it aims to affirm self-love, and to so deal with the roots of social fissures and violence. The video pushes this complication further: the joyful anthem turns into a meditation on why affirmations of love are necessary. It posits that love exists and is created always in opposition to something else (evil). If Gaga is the mother monster who loves all the monsters she has birthed, she feels a mother’s love for her many creations – this new race whose very otherness is beauty. Yet she also feels protective of her fragile, newborn race. To be loving is also to be protective, and out of this instinct is born the impulse toward violence. The loving mother, advocating for and giving form to a species free of prejudice, harbors still the kernels of emotion that give life to violence. The opening sequence of narration positions goodness and evil as inextricably linked within the self, to be continually grappled with. While “Born This Way” redefines the outsider as beautiful, it does not absolve Gaga or her beautiful monsters of impulses that lead to violence. Instead, the video challenges all to continually make a difficult choice: the choice to love.

Salvador Dalí, The Accommodations of Desires, (1929)

Lady Gaga often directs her viewers’ understanding of her projects through cultural references and quotations; in turn, these cultural references complicate the meaning of her own work. For instance, Gaga evokes Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein in the video for “Telephone” to signify how the ephemeral pop commodity is both horrific and seductive, dumb and powerful, delicious and empty. This time, Gaga cites Salvador Dalí and other artists associated with Surrealism as influences on “Born This Way,” and so deliberately directs us to her thematic concerns. Appropriately, this points us to consider the complications to be found within notions of love and bodily desire, and how these complications may answer to a cultural moment ripe with fear and violence. The Surrealists sought to champion and embody the values of love and desire in their works, which they felt to be under attack. We may not share the intense threat of censorship and social inequality that functioned in the early twentieth century, but total equality remains out of reach, and so contemplations of love continue to be vital to art as humanist enterprise.

Max Ernst, Men Shall Know Nothing of This, (1923)

The Surrealists’ explorations of love and desire were intimately influenced by psychoanalysis. But Surrealists departed from Freud’s conception of desire, predicated as it was on a model of “illness” and “cure.” What Freud thought of as perversion in need of cure the Surrealists theorized as simply one potential element of human experience. Max Ernst’s painting Men Shall Know Nothing of This (seen above), often held as a masterpiece of the Surrealist movement, is said to have been inspired by Freud’s study of the delusions of Daniel Paul Schreber, whom Freud diagnosed as a paranoiac. Specifically, Freud identified Schreber’s fantasy of becoming a woman as a “castration complex.” In the painting, the central image of two pairs of legs refers to Schreber’s hermaphroditic desires. Ernst’s inscription on the back of the piece notes that in the rendering of the legs as symmetrical, “the two sexes balance one another.” 

Thus, Ernst made room for the desires of Schreber to be something other than madness. His “delusions,” could instead signify “balance.” Gaga’s mother monster imagery – on the one hand, a writhing evil body twisting in excruciating pain, and on the other hand, a perfected image of split-screen symmetry, which together comprise an intermingling of supposed oppositions – brings to mind Ernst’s project: a sensitive meditation upon finding the humanity in those that Freud’s psychoanalysis would deem the insane other, on finding the balance within imbalance, the love in pain, the human in what has been designated inhuman. All this is a project of love.

In an experimental literary piece written by Surrealists Marcelle Ferry and André Breton, the two writers pose and answer a series of questions that demonstrate and rejoice in absurdity:

M. What is solitude?
B. It is the queen sitting at the base of the throne...
M. What is debauchery?
B. It is the place in a meadow where the grass suddenly becomes thicker. It can be seen from a long way off.”
- From “The 1934 Dialogue”

Just as the surrealists used techniques of displacement and dream logic to unsettle the reader’s relationship to “the real” – a conception of the world increasingly troubled by the chaos of modernity – so Gaga’s video for “Born This Way” employs a fragmentary narrative to unhinge the viewer’s conceptions of how the video’s narrative is to unfold, thereby unleashing the viewer into an elaborate dream fantasia, working to expand conceptions of what constitutes a “normal” experience.

Exquisite Corpse, (1934)

In a work from the same year – the drawing Exquisite Corpse (above) – Valentine Hugo, Paul Éluard, André Breton, and Nusch Éluard playfully approached fears about the limitations and possibilities of the human body. Gaga’s precise, gestural dance with the tattooed model Zombie Boy seems to echo and dramatize the sentiment of this piece: fear and longing intermingle in human encounters, decay is inevitable, loving play is the ward against the downsides of the complex human experience. Both the drawing and Gaga’s mirroring of and intimations with Zombie Boy make the monster body, something our bodies will no doubt become as their decay is inevitable – less of a curiosity to be feared and more of a form endowed with charm, to be embraced. The corpse – indicator of the fearsome unknown, the abject, lifelessness, a dead object or “thing” – is made into an exquisite subject, holder of agency, movement, life, capable of loving and being loved.

Gaga’s first visual representation of “Born This Way” was her Grammy performance in February 2011, during which she emerged from an egg-like capsule on stage. Aesthetically, this image seems to have derived from Salvador Dalí’s often used motif of new lives hatching out of eggs, such as in his sculpture “Birth of the New Man,” or painting “Geopolitical Child Watches the Birth of the New Man.” The sculpture itself is marked with the phrase “the new man has to free himself from the past.”

Salvador Dali, Birth of the New Man, (1943)

The beginning of Gaga’s visual expression of “Born This Way” depicts her being birthed, freeing herself from the past. However, by frequently relying upon an excavation of the visuals of the past, Gaga also reinvents the past for new purposes. Moving from the Grammy performance to the video, Gaga shifts from being birthed to giving birth, from being freed to freeing – at once inextricably bound to past, and attempting to liberate herself and others from its strictures and mistakes. The process is a painful one: the choice to love in the face of hardship is difficult.

Francis Bacon, Self Portrait, (1973)

The final image of the “Born This Way” video is Gaga’s face, in her zombie make-up, situated within a pink triangle, blowing a big pink bubblegum bubble, which seems about to pop. The monstrous face is reminiscent of the work of another artist Gaga has cited as an influence for the video, the painter Francis Bacon, and his dark self-portraits, which, though often read as horrific, he claimed to “not find disturbing.” By referencing Bacon’s presentation of a modified face as an monstrous and anxious, yet still human representation of a body, Gaga once again cites a dynamic process, this one concerned with how pathologized or stigmatized objects may become subjects.

Moving from the agonizing beginnings of life to the inevitabilities of corporeal decay, Gaga consistently grounds “Born This Way” in a tension of bodily pain. But the several gestures she makes to intermingle the pleasures and healing qualities of love with the certainties of pain and opposition manage to make “Born This Way” an expression of the dialectical: the past exists in the present, intimacy is expressed publicly, absurdity resides in the everyday. Binaries are not reified, they co-exist. By evoking the complex imagery of Surrealism, Gaga creates anything but a simplistic take on the powers of love and desire – love is transformative, imaginative, and continually born, a dream always to be realized, expressed, and affirming of life and the varieties of experience. The “Manifesto of Mother Monster” manifests, or gives birth, to contemplating love again and again.

Author Bio:
Willow Sharkey is an Art History graduate student at California State University, Chico. She’s interested in performance/time based art, and all things pop culture. You can read more of her writings at www.willowsharkey.com.

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  1. Yes. Love is the answer in a nutshell. Or perhaps, in an eggshell. GREAT article. Thank you.

  2. Everything you do is brilliant.

  3. Excellent article! especially the last 2 sentences


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