"[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

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-Yale's The American Scholar

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Let’s Go Crazy

By Devin O’Neill

This is the fifth piece in our series on “Marry the Night.” For the previous pieces, click here.

There is only one consistently salient factor in artistic creation, and this is insanity.

By this I mean: when creating a new cultural product, the goal is to draw together elements that are noticeable and affecting, and since our attention mechanisms are governed by pattern differentiation, we must create something that does not slot into the automatically processed functionalities of quotidian cultural life. Our eyes must not pass over it unfazed.

This is simple stuff, and covered by everyone from here to Timbuktu, but the frequency with which this principle is revisited by artists suggests a kind of fractal blossoming at the center of the idea. Madness is not a finite thing, and therefore does not produce finite things.

When we speak of madness we speak either of an underfunctioning or an overfunctioning of certain aspects of consciousness. We parse the largely unpredictable world around us into patterns and organizing narratives. We must do this to a certain extent to be sane – we must slot our narratives into the narratives of the social superstructure and oil the juncture well so’s to avoid grinding gears. We become the things we believe in this way, and social life is a thing we all believe together.

If you don’t create enough patterns, you clearly can’t function socially; our society doesn’t leave time for you to process undifferentiated experience and large systems of heuristics are necessary. But you run into problems if you go in the opposite direction too.

If you create too many patterns. If you believe in something else, something the consensus doesn’t cover.

So Gaga has hit bottom. She’s lying (not laying) in that hospital bed and she’s telling that nurse that she’s going to be a star because…because…because she has nothing left to lose. We can safely interchange star with artist, here, I think. We could problematize that too, but we won’t for the time being.

She says she fills in the holes in her life with art. What does that mean? Yes, mean indeed. What does it mean. Any of it.

That’s the point, you know. She’s trying to make it mean something. Her life.

The artist in this case has been rejected by the social superstructure. The ordinary corridors of expression are closed, the tendrils of hierarchical unworthiness tighten their grip. No more dancing for you. So what’s the solution? Where do you go?

You go crazy.

All you need is a bedazzler and some torn denim. And Cheerios. Lots and lots of Cheerios.

This crisis scene is a scene of degradation, because degradation is what is necessary. We assess social value and appropriateness on a relative scale of familiarity, and so to become crazy you must become low. If you want immediate positive social recognition for your crazy, you’re going to be disappointed. This scene isn’t comfortable, and it’s not supposed to be. It has a certain glamor, because of the production value – and she discusses this in her video interview afterward. The cameras do certain things. But she immersed herself in the scene for a half-hour. She lost her mind. Free association. Rejection of usefulness. No social value. Let’s writhe around and play with our food.

Victor Turner discusses how, during initiation, the social role and value of the initiated are removed. They are reduced to being nothing. To being no-one, so that they can build a new social identity on the other side. Or seven.

She goes crazy. But this is the process. And she looks like she could take on the flaming, exploding world at the end of it. She looks ready for anything. Her armor and her makeup, and her makeup is her armor, and her armor is her makeup.

Gaga reclaims, over and over again, the idea of the hero. We’ve spent long decades politicizing and autopsying that kind of rash, egoistic self-confidence. Baptizing yourself in your own worthiness is so hegemonic. So pre-postcolonial. Who are you to hold your own values aloft and obsess over them? You’re a crazy person.

I was, before I saw the video, planning on placing her work in theoretical juxtaposition, antagonism really, with Chris Kraus’s work. Kraus, in Where Art Belongs, talks about the necessity of art as an outgrowth of marginal spaces; the artifacted embodiment of a particular time and place, a local grouping, an immediate culture, a self found in alleyways, a vital street-level or interpersonal dialog. But Gaga has always been about projection of artifice into a monolith of heroism, a kind of collaged who’s-who of Springsteens and Warrior Princesses and other larger-than-life cultural übertropes; in a way not marginal at all (despite her politicizations, she is very pop). There is no space of “real-moment-documentation” a la Kraus’s work in "Telephone" or "Judas" or whatever; they’re almost the opposite of that.

But this bombshell is one of the most Krausian works I’ve ever seen, and the moment I watched it I knew she was fucking my thesis all to hell. In I Love Dick, Kraus transforms her obsessive love, her adulterous madness, into an object that demands recognition in all its size and complexity, and consequently transforms herself into the same. This is what Gaga is doing here – unmediated moments like the ones we see are unassailable in their unconstructedness, like documentary. This is the kind of performance art I love – if a real loss of self occurs, if instinctive, method-actor emotionalities are accessed, we’re assaulted by the aesthetic arrest of the unclothed human animal.

We’re crazy, crazy animals, we are.

Crazy, like I said, can involve building an intimidatingly signifying mythos disconnected from reality, and Gaga’s done that too. But it’s less completely disconnected, and more pathologically disconnected. Her movement and gesture are clearly informed by her pain. This is not some escapist fantasy, but a baptismal reliving; a ritual, in the sense of a really vital ritual, like a drug-addled shaman being ridden by a voodoo loa. She is allowing her past to control her to the point of possession, and she is turning that into a game – a bioanxiety-defying act of existential courage.

But the past is still there, and the sculpture of madness is chiseled with knives of pain. When we stand back and behold it, it’s beautiful. But the painting, the one she’s filling in the holes of, is a tableaux about very egoistically threatening human experiences. This is not an escape from pain, but a bent, schizophrenic compromise with it, the way some of the most agonized religious iconographies are also some of the most beautiful. She made the difficult choice to excavate what pieces she could of her traumas, and made a deal with a devil we all know, because once we were all scared little kids that hated ourselves. She married the night.

This is also a video of celebration, of liberation. But it is a mad celebration, a mad liberation – in our limited lives, perhaps the only kind we can really have.

Author Bio:
Devin O’Neill is a writer, performance artist, and branding practitioner. He enjoys things he shouldn’t, on purpose, and tries to get other people to enjoy them too. Some of his projects can be found at http://www.popocalypse.com and http://devinoneill.blogspot.com.

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