"[Gaga Stigmata has] very modern, edgy photography to free flowing, urban narratives without censure to analytical essays, et cetera—like Gaga, imagination without ... limits. And the beauty is that anyone can submit work to the site, so artists and writers from all over the [world] have joined this experiment." -The Declaration.org

"Since March 2010, [Gaga Stigmata] has churned out the most intense ongoing critical conversation on [Lady Gaga]."
-Yale's The American Scholar

Sunday, May 29, 2011

GAGAGRAPHY: Gaga, "Judas," & Francis Bacon

Definition: Gagagraphy is the branch of Gaga studies that seeks to identify, describe, and interpret the content of images depicting Lady Gaga. A Gagagraphy studies all the various components of an image of Gaga, mining for meaning the image’s positioning of its figure, her gesture, her costume, her props (animate and inanimate), her facial expression, her makeup, etc. A Gagagraphy also studies potential visual precursors to images of Gaga, seeking to understand from where Gaga’s iconography draws its inspiration, its influences, its visual quotations. Gagagraphy often necessitates comparative analysis, drawing meaning from the exercise of comparing and contrasting Gaga’s images with her visual influences.

Directions: Meditate upon the following image of Gaga, taking into account its various components. Then compare and contrast Gaga’s image with Bacon’s artwork. Leave your analysis in the comments.

Fashion Credits: 
Purple catsuit and gloves by Mugler 
Cape by Perry Meek/Haus of Gaga
Fashion director, Nicola Formichetti

Francis Bacon, Figure With Meat (1954)

About this artwork, the Art Institute of Chicago notes:
Permeated by tormented visions of humanity, Francis Bacon’s paintings embody the ethos of the postwar era. Beginning in the late 1940s, Bacon created a series of works modeled on Diego Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1649/50), in which he transformed the celebrated masterpiece into grotesque, almost nightmarish compositions. In this version, he replaced the noble drapery framing the central figure with two sides of beef, directly quoting Rembrandt van Rijn and Chaim Soutine’s haunting images of raw meat. By linking the pope with these carcasses, Bacon allowed the viewer to interpret the pope alternately as a depraved butcher, or as a victim like the slaughtered animal hanging behind him.

Diego Valázquez’s Pope Innocent X (1649/50) was a direct influence on Bacon’s painting, as was Rembrandt’s Carcass of Beef (1657):

“I kinda like this one, Bob. Leave it.” – The Joker

Saturday, May 28, 2011


by Saul Zanolari

Artist Statement:  Saul Zanolari presents his brand new portrait "Echography of Change" before the 2011 scheduled shows in NYC and Rome.

The subjects of this work are Lady Gaga and Julie Andrews. The artist plays on the oxymoron between tradition and transgression as represented by these two icons. This portrait has a Disney background but on the lower side the reading key becomes surgical and medical with an echography of a new Gaga "creature."

The original artwork is 79'x70' (200x180 cm), digital painting and acrylic on canvas.

Soon available a 100 limited edition print on paper 20'x18' (50x45 cm) on www.wollipeye.com.

Artist Bio: visit www.saulzanolari.com or www.wollipeye.com for more details.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Marketing Mother Monster

By Cheryl Helm

When Lady Gaga announced her deal with Zynga to create her own virtual playground (GagaVille) within Facebook’s popular Farmville game, there was a great deal of muttering about whether (a) she’s jumped the shark or (b) she’s sold out and has become just another commercialized pop product. My reaction was, “It’s hard to go off the reservation if you were never on the reservation to begin with.” In fact, Gaga has a pretty solid track record in circumventing the conventional marketing machinery of the music business when it comes to sharing and distributing her work, summarizing her philosophy in the interview with GoogleTalk:

“I don’t want to be a part of the machine. I want the machine to be part of me.”

The music business machine has a long history of mass-producing pop stars and teen idols who were, indeed, packaged and sold. Pop music early on acquired the cachet of a corporate product much like the Hollywood studio system (and built on that model), manipulating pop singers like puppets: choosing their clothes, styling their appearance, selecting their songs, managing their public appearances and performances, and handling all the advertising, including photo shoots and trade media ad campaigns. Disney was one of the earliest, and, one of the most (in)famous, pop-star factories and continues to be one today. It began in the late fifties when Disney figured out a way to capitalize on the rock-n-roll craze and still protect its brand as good, clean, wholesome fun (as a counterweight to the perceived sleaze and satanic temptation of rock n roll). Their formula was quite simple: find respectable, pretty and handsome white teenagers who could sing well enough not to inflict pain, and dance well enough to perform simple dance routines. Then record some bloodless, but virtuous, insipid pop songs and ta-da: Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon. The brand was Disney, and the product was a morally upstanding teenage role model and a sure-fire moneymaker until s/he was no longer so cute, or thin, or pliable.

There are certainly conventions to be observed in how a pop star is imaged and promoted – much like any brand. Photo shoots are utilized to create and enhance the star’s image, and to appeal to consumers to buy their records and attend their concerts. Brand endorsements are lucrative but even more importantly, they reinforce the pop star and hir music as products to be consumed. So in terms of music marketing and promotion, there is a reservation and most pop stars are on it.

And then there’s Gaga.

From the beginning, she was her own creator and her own advertiser. “Just Dance” got airplay because she promoted it herself, tirelessly and ceaselessly. The Fame succeeded because she was touring and campaigning for it before the first single even dropped. With precious little help from the music industry, she created her own brand, and the product is Gaga: her art, her vision, her passion, her conviction.

So it’s hardly surprising that most of Gaga’s promotional efforts are self-defined, self-controlled, and seldom conform to the industry models. That is, her promotional efforts are often art forms in and of themselves, part of her life’s grand performance, and/or what she perceives as her vocation to help bring about social justice for all. Even her records are largely promotional rather than end products; the real product is Gaga herself, on stage where she can be experienced, not consumed. In most of her promotional efforts, there is not a firm separation between the promotional activity and her performance project.

How does she do it?

Leveraging technology has always been part and parcel of Gaga’s aesthetic. She uses technology the way a painter uses watercolors, oils, acrylics, fabric, multimedia collages – as a medium for expressing and conveying her artistic visions, of which music is only one dimension, albeit the most important one. In other words, technology is only one palette, one of many avenues for both creating and sharing her work with her audiences. Her earliest shows were distinguished by the use of avant-garde films as interludes that also conveyed some element of her performance project, and also by such props as the now-famous GaGa glasses constructed with iPod LED screens to articulate part of her artistic message. The deployment of such technology has only become more extensive as her show has grown into a full-scale spectacular extravaganza.

Gaga uses social media to an unprecedented degree, and no other living artist has been as successful as she in employing Twitter and Facebook to build and support a growing fanbase that is fiercely loyal and willing to promote all her ventures. While other pop stars (Britney Spears, Katy Perry, Justin Bieber et al.) have followed suit, they tend to use Twitter as a virtual billboard to hawk their wares – asking their fans to buy products, attend performances, etc. Gaga simply announces that a new release is forthcoming, or an interview or performance has been scheduled, and her fans take on the responsibility of promoting it.

This type of viral marketing by word-of-mouth allows Gaga to completely control the content of her marketing AND builds a greater sense of unity, a sense of “us-ness” or “we-ness” that many of her fans don’t experience in their daily lives. Her fan base is built upon an army of disaffected, bullied, rejected, ridiculed, and socially-isolated people who are cut off from the normal experience of belonging within their peer groups. Her fans have embraced Gaga so avidly because she is one of them, an outsider who is still socially isolated from the mainstream music community and who is subject to a barrage of hateful comments on every media site that posts a story about her. Even though she has reached the heights of artistic achievement in pop music (and her trajectory is *still* climbing), she’s still the odd girl out, she’s still the misfit. Her fans know exactly how that feels and embrace her for it, creating a place where SHE belongs, in a spirit of love and acceptance.

Because in Gaga’s case there is mutual identification between the star and her fan base, her marketing efforts are driven by a desire to serve the community of “little monsters” as much as they are propelled by the need to sell her music, her art, her vision. GagaVille is an excellent example. With GagaVille, she has created a virtual playground for her fans and other users of Farmville who may not be familiar with her music – a place where her fans can create a virtual world of their own and populate it with elements that are personally meaningful. GagaVille reinforces the sense of community within the Gaga fan base as more users join the game, become neighbors, and share and exchange rewards and goods.

With its initial launch, Gaga used GagaVille to distribute exclusive content (songs from Born This Way), but the site has a limited shelf life, through May 26, 2011. However, given her passion for social justice, it’s quite possible that she may choose to extend GagaVille and use it in the future as a way to encourage her fans to become more active in fighting for equality, for their own rights and the rights of others. The potential for GagaVille to become a medium for motivating political and social activism is certainly there.

Additionally, by pre-releasing songs from Born This Way on GagaVille, Gaga managed to cut most leakers off at the knees, and thus did not experience the creative death of a thousand leaks – she employed GagaVille to release and distribute her songs before leakers could steal and post them. Although the album did eventually leak, one day before Gaga was to stream the entire record to fans in the UK through Metro (where she also, by the way, served for one day as a guest editor, a position she used as a platform to promote her educational program about bullying), the net effect has been to drastically undercut the leaking subculture that spoiled the rollout of her previous album, The Fame Monster.

Her latest promotional venture with Starbucks is, at first glance, a much more commercial campaign. Beginning May 19, 2011 and continuing through June 7, 2011, Starbucks is conducting a scavenger hunt featuring Lady Gaga. Store customers scan QR codes to obtain clues to use in the seven-round game, which involves math, logic, and reading skills, as well as pop-culture knowledge to decipher the clues. The game is designed to encourage group play, much as GagaVille is. The first players to solve all the clues in each round receive Starbucks merchandise and Lady Gaga promotional items. Much like Fuse TV takeovers featuring Gaga for a day (and for the Born This Way roll-out, an entire week), Gaga took over Starbucks’ digital network for a day on May 23, 2011, allowing visitors to stream the entire Born This Way album, obtain a digital download of “The Edge of Glory,” and view an exclusive video by Gaga.

Obviously the chief benefit to Gaga in this business deal is to promote sales and airplay for her album and its current single. The album was played in all Starbucks stores on May 23, 2011 (a first for the corporation), and is among the albums sold in the stores. But this deal also achieves an important social goal for Gaga by providing another technology-based means for her monsters to visit and participate as a group by discussing the clues and messages, which further fosters a sense of community among her fans.

In creating and advancing her project, Gaga also differs dramatically from her peers in the area of product endorsement. This technique in and of itself is not unique to Gaga; many pop stars are used as front women (and men) to market everything from clothing to perfume. But Gaga’s choice of what products to endorse, and her involvement in the creation or purpose of those products, are often strikingly different from her colleagues.

Corporations will often hire celebrities as “Creative Directors” to market a product that the celebrity has no actual involvement in creating. Their role is strictly that of a figurehead, putting a familiar face and name on the product. But not Gaga. In her own fashion, Gaga has inverted and reversed the role of such celebrity endorsement deals by creating her own product line (The Grey Line) for Polaroid. When Gaga accepted the position of “Creative Director” for Polaroid, she dove right in to the entire design process.

Together with the Haus of Gaga, she designed a pair of camera sunglasses that could record video or still photos and display them onscreen, a product that recalled her famous iPod glasses from The Fame era. Thus her own performance project bleeds into the design of a new product that is clearly directed, first and foremost, at her own fan base. You can be sure that in next year’s tour, she will look out into the audience and see hundreds, if not thousands, of Polaroid camera glasses displaying messages and images that are significant to her fans. And with this new product, her fans can create and literally reflect their own personal visions, media, and messages to Gaga and the world. This is creative empowerment at its best.

She also redesigned the iconic Polaroid camera for the digital age and incorporated inkless technology into the printing process. She rounded out her product line with a Bluetooth digital printer that can print images from the camera glasses, the Polaroid camera, and a cell phone. These products reflect Gaga’s personal and aesthetic commitment to sustain, re-imagine, reinvent, and reinvigorate iconic pop culture by recreating something that is both ever so familiar and yet so forward-looking at the same time. And it puts the power to create directly into the hands of her fan base.

The conventional marketing model for fragrances – another major product line often endorsed by celebrities – has been turned on its head with Gaga’s involvement in developing her own fragrance for Coty. While it’s likely that celebrities have some say in the fragrances developed for the product lines they endorse, Gaga chose the essential ingredient herself: the molecular structure of her own blood. Talk about bleeding one’s aesthetic into a product! This revelation certainly perpetuates Gaga’s reputation as a quirky, eccentric star who never trods a predictable path if she can avoid it.

It also explains a rather cryptic remark made during her ShowStudio interview in May 2010. Asked what was the nerdiest thing she’d ever done, she giggled and said that she and her Haus were trying to discover the effects of the smell of blood on people. Now we know why. And again, Gaga is creating something both unique and deeply personal directed toward her fans. It’s not just a fragrance for your skin. It’s the essence of Gaga herself….the ultimate bonding between star and audience.

Gaga’s passion for humanitarian and social justice causes is well-known, so her willingness to serve as spokesperson for the MAC Viva Glam products to raise funds for AIDS prevention and treatment is a natural extension of her personal commitment to such causes. In addition to using the products herself, she’s made several personal appearances to promote the cause that the products fund. In an interview on Good Morning America, she leveraged her fashion aesthetic by wearing a Mugler latex outfit, which she said was “condom inspired” because she wanted to talk about the issue of safe sex.

She also created a short video with Nick Knight for MAC Viva Glam that is itself a work of art. It features the Viva Glam products, uses a non-verbal message to promote safe sex, AND foreshadows several elements of the video for “Born This Way,” which was released some time later.

Viva Mac Lotus
"BTW" Lotus Spirals

Left: Viva Mac, Right: "BTW"
Spilt/mirrored-image face

Left: Viva Mac, Right: "BTW"

Top: Viva Mac, Bottom: "BTW"

Once again, Gaga managed to blend her performance project with the endorsement of a commercial product line that promotes her own social and humanitarian values. Much like her music videos, Gaga uses every marketing opportunity to articulate some element of her overall aesthetic, to build layers of cultural references and commentary, and to nurture her community of fans – to intensify the personal bonds and create a larger, deeper sense of belonging and identity, a sense of us-ness that liberates them from their social isolation, out of which is born a new sense of freedom and creativity. She is nurturing the next generation of artists and designers, and the next generation of political activists and leaders who will change the world, one (commercial) project at a time.

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Saturday, May 21, 2011


By Kate Durbin

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Untitled Painting

by Jarrad Dickson

Artist Statement: The use of blood from a so-called "mentally ill" person, mis-diagnosed with schizophrenia, fits a significant theme in Lady Gaga's work: to rectify those with disabilities. Jarrad Dickson has painted Lady Gaga in his own blood, in an effort to reclaim what is his. This painting was created in mid-2010.

Artist Bio: Jarrad Dickson received his BA in Latin at the University of Auckland. He is the author of Rose Blood: Chapter of Rose Croix (Chipmunkapublishing, 2010-one of three books being literary endearments to a suicide), The Chamber of Diseases (Dark Harvest Occult Publishers, 2011-forthcoming) about psychiatric corrosion of the ego leading to selflessnes of the mentally ill. He also has written a work named Mystical Metaphors: Psychotic Pathways to the Source on what Deikman labeled mystical psychosis with Dan L. Edmunds, a psychotherapist from PA. He is an aspiring author, artist, and occultist. He has his own Lady Gaga academic project forthcoming, on the occult references in her work. He was misdiagnosed with schizophrenia, and has been incarcerated for over one year in psychiatric hospitals altogether since the age of 20, now 24, and was chemically lobotomised by the typical antipsychotic Haloperidol. He is writing his first commercial novel, Stop, the Ambulance with a ex-Scottish Rite Freemason of 32degree being its symbologist about the cabbalistic "crossing of the abyss" in a horror setting. He has visions, and induced them into books to form a new term of his "literary psychosis." He lives in New Zealand.

GAGAGRAPHY: Gaga & Fellini

Definition: Gagagraphy is the branch of Gaga studies that seeks to identify, describe, and interpret the content of images depicting Lady Gaga. A Gagagraphy studies all the various components of an image of Gaga, mining for meaning the image’s positioning of its figure, her gesture, her costume, her props (animate and inanimate), her facial expression, her makeup, etc. A Gagagraphy also studies potential visual precursors to images of Gaga, seeking to understand from where Gaga’s iconography draws its inspiration, its influences, its visual quotations. Gagagraphy often necessitates comparative analysis, drawing meaning from the exercise of comparing and contrasting Gaga’s images with her visual influences.

Directions: Meditate upon the following image of Gaga, taking into account its various components. Then compare and contrast Gaga’s image with Fellini’s. Leave your analysis in the comments.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Interview Question

We've been asked the following question in an interview:
Why should we care about Lady Gaga?
Please share your answer with us in the comments (we would like to share your thoughts with our interviewer!).
Gaga Stigmata

Friday, May 13, 2011

Judas Gaga: Five Scenes from a Motorcycle Fellini PopArt Fantasy Film

By Andrea Quinlan

The following piece is the seventh in our series on “Judas.” For the first piece, click here; the second, here; the third, here; the fourth, here; the fifth, here, the sixth, here.

1. Entrance of the Motorcycle gang

white letters on the back of a black leather jacket
a crown of gold glittered up thorns
blue cape aviator heart shaped gaze
Together we'll ride into the sunset

2. In the Electric Chapel

We don’t yet have a bride
But a lady with crosses on her velvet bra/heart
And her red plastic heart on blue leather
As she sings and dances
Judas looks at her like a meat dress
Before bumping, grinding and fighting
Jesus looks on with a glassy stare

3. Lipstick Betrayal 

Three times and still you betray me
Now it is my turn
With my gold gunshot lipstick kiss
I make my mark
I smear it across your cheek
The one I love the one I betray
It is written JUDASJUDAAA

4. Water Baby

A Golden Madonna standing on the shore
As the waves crash on the shoulders of her GucciChanel
In a Felliniesque dress drenched by the water 
This fountain gives life as it takes it away

5. Our Lady’s Second Video Death

The first time he threw her off a balcony
Now she is dressed for a white wedding away from the flashlights
In a time of stones and fire
A sacrifice
A collapse in makeup
A jewel and a tear

Author Bio:
Andrea Quinlan has an MA in Art History. Her work has been published in Defect Perfection Literary Review, Delirious Hem, and Gaga Stigmata.

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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Jesus ◊ Judas

By Vanessa Place

The following piece is the sixth in our series on “Judas.” For the first piece, click here; the second, here; the third, here; the fourth, here; the fifth, here.

With uncanny historicism, the Judas video was released while another great cultural metaphor played on the world stage, one which also revealed the workings of terror and desire. For, in addition to the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, Jodie Foster’s The Beaver was released in theaters nationwide. For those who missed the picture, The Beaver, directed by Foster, was about a “hopelessly depressed” toy manufacturer (played by Mel Gibson) who finds his way back to nuclear family happiness via his discovery of, and communication through, an old hand puppet – a cloth beaver. In a review, The New York Times critic noted that the character of the mad father was upstaged by his mouthpiece: “Take away his puppet, and the man disappears.” While this is true of Gibson and his anti-Semitism in particular, could we not also say more generally, take away his beaver, and man disappears? And what we have in Judas is a case of the disappearing beaver.

The video begins with a nod to Judas Priest/Hell’s Angels, a nod that nods twice, as the coupling of heaven and hell has been a match made here on earth at least since Blake put the two in tasty proximity. If this sounds like a candy treat, it is that as well: while the video is full of iconography, it is iconography sans bite or significance. Jesus is a very cute Latino man who mostly stares, blank and beautiful, his lips fruit-juicy and apple-pink, while Judas is the kind of bad-news-but-scruffy-cute white guy who is at home anywhere there is canned beer and Nikki Sixx. Lady Gaga, as Magdalena, wears a prescient crucifix, because there’s no future tense like the past. For today’s transgression lies in the absolute lack of transgression, in the smooth absorption of all that was once considered something worth fighting or fighting for. We’ve seen it, done it, dismissed it, embraced it; the human stain is but a birthmark, meaning nothing more meaningful than pigment. By way of iconographic comparison, Madonna’s Like a Prayer (1989) featured fistfuls of Catholic referents, played, as Madonna will play them, straight. A saint is a saint is a saint. A crucifix means something, especially when it’s set on fire, and sure enough, a person of color completes the object-circle, making sure we get the goddamn point about love or whatever. In Judas, Jesus is cute, Judas cute, a gold-plated gun is no more or less phallic than a bright red lipstick, and what’s divine is the decoupage. WWJD, indeed: J who or who’s J to you?

Lacan’s lozenge (◊) represents envelopment-development-conjunction-disjunction, the meeting of that which is greater than (>) and that which is less than (<), that which is alienated from (˅) and that which is conjoined to (˄). In the matheme for fantasy ($ ◊ a), it is the punched-out point (poinçon – being the signature punch of a silversmith on a piece of silver) between the subject and the petit objet a, the ineffable “thing” that is both the Other’s desire (never the desire of another) and the what’s left over from the process of symbolization (more accurately conjugated in the gerund). It is the desire for desire, the self-constituting itself by way of its own traumatic lack. The lack filled by the beaver. Beaver, as you know, is American slang for a slash, a slit, a hole, a rocket socket pocket, a pussy. The woman played in Judas as Gaga as Magdalena, for the story of the Magdalene in this case is not the story of any other Other. The Woman does not exist, and you can’t holla for a dolla if you’re working for fun and for free. But given that this Jesus is not appreciably different, though arguably less life-like, than this Judas, and this betrayal is not between J & J, but is a three-way with Gaga in the middle, this woman, in other words, being the only real actor – the others being simply script, something in the passé compose – the action or passion being played purely as theater, as a series of shuttling sets and crowd shots, then is it not the not that is in play? Though there seems to have been some ruffling of religious feathers after the video’s release, Judas does not offend in the heretical sense because there is no unspooling of real belief. Rather, the imagery here is excremental, sacrament as excrement, as the residual of symbolizing that looks like the shit, but isn’t it. The constituent absent.

Unlike Christ on the Cross or a crutch, or the crotch of Christ analyzed by Leo Steinberg as the Renaissance artists’ proof of Christ’s humanity (necessary for the Renaissance audience, who had no problem believing in the predicate divinity), the Judas Christ is done before He’s begun. He’s Risen and Ready to Rock & Roll. For this “king with no crown” there’s both purple and gold, buckets of the stuff, and backup guys and gals galore, but the turf is astro- and gang-ish, the music Euro synth-pop-like, not percussive or otherwise prone to beating, the break water is just water breaking, and a cistern of holy water is transcendent as a hot tub time machine. The Judas lyrics are a comparable grab-bag of Christian iconographic sound-bites stripped of iconic sense: “Even after three times, he betrays me.” Three times being incantory of something, though not of Peter, though there is a reference to a brick, which is sort of like a rock, which is sort of like an item that can be used for good or bad, though there’s nothing inherent in this or that which underscores or troubles any thesis or theodicy. We’ve got nothing but signification and a star to sail her by. But we also know this nothing is not nothing, that the beaver must be in order for it to not be (the trace of the vanishing signifier presupposes its predicate), effacing the man, any man, man being me in addition to you and whoever you happen to be beside, and thus the Gaga/the Magdalena/the Beaver subs in for saviour & sinner & the sinner who saves. It means nothing but its own allusiveness where allusiveness is simply allusion. Excremental-lite, like long sentences for minor crimes. The only thing that saves Judas from the weight of its own triviality is the way Gaga herself stands for the residual of the Symbolic via the excess of the Imaginary. As noted in the line “I just speak in future tense,” just as the players in this faux-Passion wear the talismans of that which is to come – crosses, cruciform, a crown of thorns – but it’s not bloody, but bling, cachè-4-cash, there’s no trauma in this except the punched-out hole of our desire for meaning. This is the minor note of nihilism, one not born of belief, or belief’s best friend, irony, but one thrown from a subject that only knows itself via its facebook profile. And that’s the face of real terror: the stone-cold stare into the fact there is no mirror, just mask and the nothing that lies beneath. Gaga is not a Warholian screen, for the Warholian screen fundamentally participates in our fantasy of self, that we are something, that I somehow am. Gaga is the digital surface, a composition that exists only in the act of composing, which is always an adaptation, another kind of referral without referent. “Judas kiss” is the kiss that betrays; when Gaga sings, “Judas kiss if you’re offended, you betray me,” she plays a faux mirror-move because if you take offense to this, this beaver, this punch-point, you betray the “me” of Gaga, but there’s no “me” that’s her, because, if you’ll remember, she’s monstrously “you.”

Author Bio:
Vanessa Place writes poetry, prose, and art criticism; she is also a criminal lawyer and co-director of Les Figues Press. Her most recent work is available in French as Exposé des Faits, and in English as Statement of Facts. Kenneth Goldsmith has called Place’s work “arguably the most challenging, complex, and controversial literature being written today.”

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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Refusing to Atone for Atonality: Gaga’s Rupture of Affective Mirroring

By Amanda Montei

The following piece is the fifth in our series on “Judas.” For the first piece, click here; the second, here; the third, here; the fourth, here.

Lady Gaga notoriously serves up deceptively simple lyrics, but in “Judas” there is an apparent note of mockery in her voice, an accent that vamps up and parodies the hyper-masculine biker culture that lays the narrative framework for the video. The vocal tone is reminiscent of much of her other work, particularly “Poker Face,” with its drawn out yet truncated pronunciation of final consonants and syllables (e.g. “Ma” instead of “My”). This apparently mocking, slang-slanted tone is inviting, and begs interrogation from the viewer, but also seems to have a special relationship to Gaga’s use of aesthetic tonality.

The tone of Gaga’s career – that is, “its global or organizing affect, its general disposition or orientation towards its audience and the world” – is essentially the tone she evokes in the “Judas” video writ large. Sianne Ngai has written, using Melville’s narratives as a reference point, that tone can no longer be considered something inherent to a work, but is rather a process of affective circuitry that occurs between an aesthetic object and its reader/viewer.[i]

Gaga’s vocal tone in “Judas” reeks of irony, as does the general “disposition” of the video: the lyrics are Madonna-esque in their pop girlishness; the conceptual framework of the video, in characteristic Gaga style, is ostentatiously chic and iconoclastic; the dancing is relatively simplistic, at times even charade-like (Gaga shapes a heart as she sings “still in love with Judas, baby”); the bathtub scene is highly satirical as an unapologetic embodiment of “pop” soiling religiosity. But as Ngai reminds us, irony is a target-directed stance, and Gaga infers no clear target in the video. If Judas and Jesus are to be interpreted as dual dueling forces, whose side is Gaga on? Not even the gun – the infamous lipstick gun – can really be said to indicate any sort of organizing affect, as its normally masculinized violent inflection is re-inscribed, making it a symbol of the “feminine.” Interestingly, it is at this point that the video goes silent, and a marked void or absence pauses the narrative flow as Gaga sweeps her hands up her body, signaling a nod to feminine desire as void, as only defined, in Western patriarchy, by what is not male. Or in Mary Magdalene/Gaga’s case, what is not Jesus and/or Judas.

But the video quickly abandons this pause, and we return to scenes of desperate “clinging” to. We get another scene, in the tub, and we wonder: who is Gaga in bed with?

The final scene is perhaps the only indication of any clear target of irony. Finding herself torn between the duality of good and evil, between Judas and Jesus, Gaga/Mary herself becomes the victim of stone-throwers. She collapses in a bird-like akimbo fold, and we end on Gaga (now outside the narrative, though there is no indication as to where she “stands”) with a single jewel on one cheek, a single tear on the other, and her face full of yearning. Are we to believe that Gaga then is the aim of the irony here? This could be said to align with lyrics from the bridge, which explicitly name Gaga a “fame hooker.” Is the irony directed then towards fame itself? Or is she a networked symbol of all of us, torn between too many dualities? Or, in a circular fashion, can we conclude that Gaga’s split loyalty between the false dichotomy of good and evil – which is the heavily frontloaded force throughout the video – is the ultimate target of Gaga’s ironic play?

Clearly, we cannot place Gaga’s performance here – or elsewhere – into such a definitive aesthetic category. Recent reactions from the Catholic League’s Bill Donahue only highlight the amorphousness of “Judas”:

In her “Judas” video, Lady Gaga plays fast and loose with Catholic iconography, and generates several untoward statements, but she typically dances on the line without going over it. Perhaps that is because the video is a mess. Incoherent, it leaves the viewer more perplexed than moved. The faux-baptismal scene is a curious inclusion, as is her apparent fondness for the Jesus character. But if anyone thinks the Catholic League is going to go ballistic over Lady Gaga’s latest contribution, they haven’t a clue about what really constitutes anti-Catholicism.

Donahue seems hardly able to contain the frustration he feels with the “loose” use of iconography, Gaga’s dancing “on the line without going over it,” and the “faux” quality that makes the video unable to be reductively labeled as simply anti-Catholic.

Gaga’s tonal ambiguity is precisely where the power of her work lies. By circumventing this ironic target-practice, Gaga’s work consistently gives the viewer the “meta-ironic feeling of an irony intended for and available to everyone but oneself.” To use Mikel Dufrenne’s term, the “expressed world” of the video, and of ideology itself, is destabilized, leaving the viewer in state of suspension. This denies any viewer the experience we normally associate with Hollywood glamour and fame: projection. We cannot map ourselves on Gaga, not even to say that she has created in “Judas” an aesthetically pleasing critique of Catholicism. This process of atonality forces viewers and Little Monsters everywhere into a confrontation not only with “Bartlebyan stuckness” – which for Ngai is inextricably linked to ideological marginalization – but also into a queer revelry within such stuckness.

Ngai argues that traditionally, two kinds of textual interactions have been used in art and aesthetics (both in practice and in criticism). The first is sympathy, which gives us “a perfectly symmetrical circuit of affective communication.” We feel what a character feels, and we identify with them. While “Judas” is full of “objectified affect,” and points to this through hyperbole and artifice (fake nails, fake eyebrows, Gaga faking feelings towards Jesus when she really loves Judas), we cannot feel what Gaga feels as we aren’t sure, in a holistic sense. Gaga-as-Mary, after all, is still just Gaga-as-Mary, where Mary as a character is a conduit for Gaga’s persona, which constantly invades our readings of her work.

The second kind of viewer-text relationship is that of projection, wherein the viewer misrecognizes the work, and slaps their “self,” and the feeling the objectified text evokes in them, right onto the work. The artwork is then understood “as if the feeling a work elicits “were an intrinsic property of the work itself.” In both models, aesthetic encounters are reduced to “affective mirroring.” The process is a closed circuit, and the viewer can momentarily step into, in a Freudian-Lacanian sense, Ideal (but false) figurations of stable and fixed selfhood. This is normally how we interact with celebrity – fame is where we find ourselves. Gaga invites the death of this kind of interaction with fame symbolically, killing off Mary/Gaga/Fame Hooker in the final exultant scene.

It is only when our aesthetic judgment is forced “out of its mirror stage,” that we become incredibly uncomfortable with the affective experience we have with an aesthetic object. Ngai uses Melville’s The Confidence-Man to show how an alternative, negative model of aesthetic engagement produces “dysphoric feelings” in a reader/viewer – feelings of stuckness that mimic feelings of stuck agency – by offering only “the perception of an unfelt feeling.” We have a crystallized version of this in the scene of the “feminine” (as the category exists in Western thought/ideology) mentioned earlier: Gaga/Mary is captured in a moment of suspension standing on a bed of rocks in a fashion model pose as a wave hits her back. The moment is acathartic and liminal. Such a state of deferment is particularly analogous to the “feminine,” in that “woman” as a category is unreachable in any stable way, and as such, the gender category is a vast lacuna (as are all the other “categories” Gaga spotlights here), which Gaga proceeds to fill in with a kind of cultural fete.

Gaga’s work, which simply cannot be divorced from her persona-performance, actually furthers Melville’s negative model by triangularizing tonality. We are left only with questions, with responses, with G.S. and theory, and this points radically towards a vacuous space of unfeltness that exists at the center of a constellation of ideological binaries and systems, which seek to censure/censor her politics. Gaga takes pleasure in this space, and here is where her work becomes particularly radical. She actually transforms the feeling of stuckness – the state of abeyance experienced by marginalized groups in our imperialist late-capitalist moment – into a fuck-you moment of proudly debauched and decorated joy in resisting absolutist tonality. In turn, we feel this. She offers us that. This is not to say that she valorizes marginalized states of stuck agency, but rather that her work, if we let it, allows us to affectively proceed towards a pleasurable engagement with Symbolic rupture.

Refusing to allow pop a “status as an object of general unconcern,” and refusing to allow the “affective mirroring” normally associated with fame, “Judas” refuses to atone for atonality. This move seems to answer Claire Johnston’s call for a feminist/queer film practice that “opens up the possibility of a different Symbolic Order,” as well as Kristeva’s notions of rupturing “the structure or system of exchange and communication on which signification is founded.”[ii]

[i] Ngai, Sianne. Ugly Feelings. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2004).

[ii] Johnston, Claire. “Towards a Feminist Film Practice.” Movies and Methods. (Berkeley, CA: Univ. of Berkeley, 1985).

Author Bio:
Amanda Montei is recent graduate of the CalArts MFA Writing program. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ms. MagazinePAJ: A Journal of Performance and ArtPANKNanofictionNight Train, Harriet, and others. She blogs for Ms. Magazine, and sometimes maintains an amorphous blog of her own at bluebloodbabyblech.blogspot.com. She lives in Los Angeles.

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Monday, May 9, 2011

Gaga/Magdalene: Unpacking Prostitution in “Judas”

By Lesley Kinzel

The following piece is the fourth in our series on “Judas.” For the first piece, click here; the second, here; the third, here.

The historical record of Mary Magdalene may well be one of the most far-reaching cases of posthumous character assassination that Western Judeo-Christian culture has ever seen, or perpetrated. The result is that she may be the most mysterious and misunderstood woman that the world has yet known, having spent most of recorded human history misidentified as a prostitute until the label was withdrawn during Vatican II in 1969.

A thousand years of alleged whoredom is not a mark easily washed away, and so Mary Magdalene’s name continues to be synonymous with “prostitute” in popular culture. These days, it is generally accepted amongst biblical scholars that in her own time, Mary Magdalene was not so defined by the “seven demons” – whatever they may have been – from which she was liberated by Jesus. Her primary role was as one of the more crucial apostles. This is not to suggest she didn’t run into obstructionist misogyny even then. In the apocryphal gospel attributed to Mary Magdalene there is a story of her receiving a vision from the resurrected Jesus, and Peter immediately gives her shit about it:

“Did he then speak secretly with a woman, in preference to us, and not openly? Are we to turn back and all listen to her? Did he prefer her to us?” Then Mary grieved and said to Peter, “My brother Peter, what do you think? Do you think that I thought this up myself in my heart or that I am lying concerning the Savior?”

With a woman. A woman, then as now, could not be entirely trusted to tell the truth, to take the high road, to lead a movement of people. Women are naturally wicked, of course, prone to lies and suspicious motives, and so Mary Magdalene had to be made a prostitute in order to prove out the view that women do not belong as leaders and thinkers and takers of action – in the church, or anywhere else, for that matter. Her actions no longer have meaning if she took them for money. Are we to turn back and all listen to her? To a woman?

In the video for “Judas,” Lady Gaga takes on the role of Mary Magdalene, traveling with him and the rest of the apostles to a reminagined “New Jerusalem.” The Gaga/Magdalene connection is not surprising, given that Gaga has often been labeled a prostitute, an attention-whore, or otherwise as a woman who does not know her place. In the video, Gaga is repeatedly torn between Jesus and Judas, between sainthood and sin. She plays the role tough, with a swagger that heavily (and more than a little problematically) co-opts Latino gang culture. Gaga attempts to protect Jesus, both from Judas and from her own sinful “hooker”-y urges in Judas’ direction, and she, like most of us, is only halfway successful.

In the video’s pivotal scene, Gaga stands between Judas and Jesus at the moment of betrayal, prepared to kill Judas to stop the events that will result in Jesus’ death. Jesus, with a subtle shake of his head, instructs her to stand down, and Gaga collapses in despair. Before she falls, she smears vivid red lipstick on Judas’ face – a screaming look-at-me color, nothing demure about it – and prepares him for the kiss that will ultimately destroy both of the men she loves.

Judas has also been historically misunderstood, long thought to have betrayed Jesus to the authorities for thirty pieces of silver, himself a prostitute insofar as performing an allegedly immoral action in exchange for money. Contemporary scholarship has begun to doubt this version of events, however, arguing instead that Jesus asked Judas to “betray” him because he was the only apostle he could trust to do so. Either of these stories involve equal amounts of prostitution, as in both cases Judas is not kissing Jesus because he wants to, but because doing so promises a valuable reward, be it money or immortality. Obviously, the Christ narrative means little without crucifixion and death – the betrayal and death of Jesus in this story is as necessary as it is tragic.

Interestingly, Jesus’ death is totally absent from the “Judas” video, as are any of the historical events to follow Judas’ betrayal. Gaga instead reshapes the betrayal narrative as a metaphor for her own persona, caught between the competing assumptions about who she is and what she is trying to do. Is she a “fame hooker” as others have called her, and as she calls herself? Are her motives selfish or selfless? She confuses us at every turn; all we can expect from her is something we have failed to anticipate.

Immediately following the lipstick application, straddling the distance between Gaga’s despair and the prostitute-kiss between Judas and Jesus, the video breaks to a dream sequence in which a motionless Gaga is overcome by a cascade of waves reminsicent of the early mythological origins of a much older deity: the Greek goddess of love and sexuality, Aphrodite.

Gaga thereby connects herself with another powerful, otherworldly feminine archetype worshipped long before Jesus was a glimmer in his [F]ather’s eye, and one also associated with sacred prostitution. Aphrodite literally means “out of the foam”; as the story goes, she was born of the ocean, after Uranus’ son castrated (or possibly emasculated) the elder god and threw his severed genitals into the sea. Given the persistent rumors that Gaga is intersex, or possesses both male and female genitalia, the depiction of her in the role of a distinctly feminine, sex-centric goddess born as a result of the removal of male genitalia is both tongue-in-cheek and incredibly apt.

Gaga, however, is not lifted up by the waves in this iteration, but is rather knocked down by them, foreshadowing her demise at the end of this story, and, as she vanishes beneath the deluge, illustrating an erasure of feminine archetypes of power and leadership. Following this interlude, Gaga shares a ritual bath with both Jesus and Judas; now she is no common whore but a sacred prostitute, as in Aphrodite’s temple in Cornith, where sexual intercourse is a form of worship. In so doing, she honors the two biggest competing parts of herself: the one that wants to create art that makes a better world, and the one that simply wants to be famous and adored.

As Gaga’s videos go, “Judas” is curiously chaste, even given the prostitution themes. The closest Gaga comes to intimating sex with either Jesus or Judas is in the looks she gives them, but her physical contact with both men is either protective (as in the fight in the electric chapel), or violent (as when she shoves Judas down the stairs when they enter), or caretaking (as in her efforts to ritually clean the feet of both men in the temple bath). Visible sex is superfluous in this context. Here we are not meant to be looking at the defining acts of a prostitute; we are meant to be looking at the ideologies that create her as a cultural monster, the anti-woman.

The video concludes with Gaga wearing a heavily-embellished white dress, similar to a wedding gown, a primary symbol of purity and chastity. Of course, for Gaga to present herself in such a way is the ultimate blashemy – prostitutes can’t be wives, you know; prostitutes are women to be used and thrown away, not loved or respected, and once you have been a prostitute you can never be anything else. And so she is stoned by an angry mob. The video ends with her death, both Jesus and Judas tellingly absent, Gaga facing her detractors alone.

Gaga’s demise represents not only those who would punish her for failing to know her proper role, for daring to aspire beyond acceptable limits, but also the quick and complete destruction of any form of feminine power that is not othered and subjugated to the masculine. The dead Gaga is both the erased Aphrodite and the slandered Mary Magdalene, as well as every other woman who has had her reputation and her life destroyed for daring to raise her voice, to draw attention, or to have sex outside the boundaries men have set. Gaga adopts her “fame hooker” mantle even knowing the potential consequences.

The church made Mary Magdalene a prostitute because, according to popular cultural connotations going back as long as misogyny has existed, a prostitute is one of the worst things a woman can be. A prostitute is a woman who squanders the one thing she has of value, her sex, by selling it to whomever is willing to pay. Prostitution is culturally-coded as the opposite of selflessness, the ministration of pleasure by a woman whose motives are only to satisfy her lover when doing do enables her to satisfy herself. She comes first, in payment, or gratification, or both. Sex is not her privilege, nor a treasured opportunity to worship the masculine, but is rather an occupation by which she can support herself. A prostitute is a woman who is self-sufficient, a woman who needs no husband, no man to tell her how to live. She is a woman who resists convention for the sake of her own survival. “Judas” demands we look at our assumptions about women who dare to step outside the gendered boundaries, sexual and otherwise, that culture defines for us.

Author Bio:
Lesley Kinzel is a writer, lapsed academic, cultural critic, and fat lady extraordinaire. She writes about popular culture and body politics at http://twowholecakes.com, and is currently working on her first book for The Feminist Press. She lives just outside Boston, MA with her husband and three very spoiled cats.

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