By Roland Betancourt
[T]he costume of Pierrot worn by the mime becomes the white field into which cast shadows are thrown, creating a secondary set of traces that double two of the elements crucial to the image. One of these is the Pierrot’s hand as it points to the camera; the other is the camera itself, the apparatus that is both the subject of the mime’s gesture and the object of recording it. On the surface of the mime’s clothing, these shadows, which combine the conventional language of gesture (pointing) and the technical mechanism of recording (camera) into a single visual substance, have the character of merely ephemeral traces. But the ultimate surface on which the multiple traces are not simply registered, but fixed, is that of the photograph itself.
As an art historian, this is a stereotypical (albeit groan-worthy) place to start: a quote by the loved/reviled modernist art historian Rosalind E. Krauss. In her 1978 article “Tracing Nadar,” published in the journal October, Krauss described a late-nineteenth century photographic representation of the stock-character Pierrot by the French photographer Nadar (aka Gaspard-Félix Tournachon), focusing on the question of the photographic medium itself and its capacity to capture the indexical trace of its object – that is, on the power of the photograph to capture the objects that it represents through the physical impression of light within the camera that has bounced off the body of the sitter. In the ekphrastic description (cited above), Krauss sees the photograph of Pierrot pointing to the camera as manifesting the logic of the photographic medium, with Pierrot himself operating emblematically.
|Félix Nadar (1820-1910), Adrien Tournachon (1825-1903), Pierrot the Photographer, also called The Mime Artist Deburau, 1854. Salted paper print. H. 28.6; W. 21 cm© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski|
Krauss’s reflections on medium specificity, medium reflexivity, and other related modernist myths dominated the fields of modern and contemporary art from the 1970s to the 1990s. Building upon and responding to the work of contemporary mentors, friends, and fellow critics, Krauss was accompanied in the crusade for medium-specificity by figures such as Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried, who saw medium-specificity as the paradigm of modernist and late-modern artistic production. Essays such as Greenberg’s “Towards a Newer Laocoön” or Michael Fried’s “Art and Objecthood” are taught in any survey of modern and contemporary art – and often even find their way into the most expansive surveys of global histories of art.
Hence, when I first saw the cover for Lady Gaga’s single “Applause” from ARTPOP, Krauss’s ekphrasis on Pierrot as a medium condition resounded in my mind. Surrounded by a voluptuous and crinkly white garment, Gaga’s head emerges from within the folds. She wears a tight, black skullcap, and features a white-powdered face. The image is strikingly in keeping with the iconography of the stock-character Pierrot of the Commedia dell’Arte, whose trope dates back to the seventeenth century, and is famously depicted, for example, in a 1718 painting attributed to Antoine Watteau, now in the Louvre. The character Pierrot serves as a particularly adept emblem for ARTPOP given that he was a figure of popular culture who nevertheless found its way into the most notable art of his periods, from Watteau’s canvas to Nadar’s picture – produced in the cutting-edge medium of photography. As “Applause” says: “Pop culture was in art, now art’s in pop culture, in me.”
|Antoine Watteau, Pierrot (also known as Gilles), c. 1718-19; Oil on canvas; 184 x 149 cm; Musée du Louvre, Paris|
In particular, Krauss’s reading of Nadar’s Pierrot resounded in my mind when I saw the cover of “Applause” because of the smeared paint on Gaga’s face: the white modernist canvas layered with paint. Gaga’s lipstick and eye shadow streak across her face in a forceful, tactile smudging of the paint that literally manifests Krauss’s thesis: the body of Pierrot as a surface for shadows is reiterated in Gaga’s image: she emblematizes the white canvas coated in paint. Note that the smudges even take on a painterly quality in the way in which they are streaked across her face in thick, textured strokes that appear to have been thickly applied with a paintbrush.
Much of my previous writing on Gaga has analyzed how she plays with her own body as a medium and site for image generation and proliferation. Thus, I am particularly taken by the manner in which the white-canvas of her powdered face on the “Applause” cover is scraped to reveal the skin underneath – as if revealing the unprimed canvas beneath the white-washed modernist surface. That white canvas is not some neutral, basic state in nature upon which paint as an additive is layered. Instead, the medium condition is in itself an act of preparation, of covering up, of white-washing, of preparing a body so that it may itself become a medium.
It is this revelation of flesh beneath what we first assumed to be the primal medium that particularly relates to Gaga’s current collaborations: namely, her collaboration with Marina Abramović. As a performance artist whose work has always been rooted upon acts of endurance that utilize the body as a medium, Abramović requires long-term preparation to create her work – thus, shattering any supposition that the body, as given alone, is itself an unadulterated medium. Instead, akin to the practice of ritual oblations or other ritual acts of preparation, “The Abramović Method” trains artists and publics in a variety of exercises aimed at heightening concentration and an awareness of the body. Recently, the Marina Abramović Institute (MAI) released a video of a (not coincidentally, nude) Lady Gaga undergoing this process with Abramović, which in essence serves as a representation of the processes and procedures that the body must undergo to become a medium – a process that the “Applause” cover captures through the emblem of Pierrot.
In this sense, the importance of “Applause” is not as a song or as a single per se, but rather as a preparation of a medium condition itself. In other words, I would argue that “Applause” is preparing the way for ARTPOP rather than serving as a manifestation of it. The lyrics serve as a thesis statement: in their angry disregard of the critic-blogger, and in their embrace of fandom as a mode of artistic reception, the lyrics herald the construction of a condition for artistic reception that is post-critical. After all, this is why the song is so banally titled and concerned with “Applause” – the sonic adoration of the fan. Its epic dance beat, which almost reads like a dance remix itself, makes the literal demand “put your hands up and make them touch” all the more meaningful, as one imagines the song blaring at a club or concert while euphoric fans literalize the demands of the song through dance (as is often the case with such songs). The song embodies the sonic and kinesthetic demands of its aurality as one sings, dances, and applauds along with its lyrics.
|Gaga in LA, 12 August 2013|
Yet this Gaga-Pierrot also harkens back to another stereotypical source when discussing Lady Gaga: The Manifesto of Little Monsters. In the Manifesto, Gaga describes the process by which her fans construct the topography of her kingdom through their wielding of cameras – akin to a court historian. Notably, Gaga describes herself as “something of a devoted jester,” and later adds, “we are nothing without our image, without our projection.” In the black-and-white Monster Ball interlude video in which the Manifesto appeared, the imagery suggests what I can only describe as a nineteenth-century rendition of Robert Mapplethorpe – with the video’s representations of rubber bondage masks/suits and other quasi-sadomasochistic paraphernalia. In retrospect, the imagery now seems to harken back to a form of nostalgic revision of Nadar’s photography – playing indirectly with the Pierrot figure. The cover for “Applause” notably positions itself as a photograph with the artist’s name and title written in cursive script on the bottom edge as if a limited-print of an artist photograph.
In “Applause,” Gaga has given life – for the first time – to this “devoted jester” precisely through the image of the comedic stock-character of Pierrot. In the context of the lyrics, the image of Gaga-Pierrot plays specifically into the ideas set forth by the Manifesto of Little Monsters as the construction of a space for artistic reception within the cultish configurations of fandom – outside the grasp of the disapproving critic, all that exists is euphoric approval and applause. I suppose because Gaga realizes – much like the Gaga Stigmata project – that criticality has its limits, and that there are forms of analytic coming together and generative hermeneutics that exist beyond the realm of criticism and criticality. This is the creative freedom allowed for by a fan-base. So here, when I begin my analysis with a worn-out reading and with stereotypical sources and citations, in a sense I inhabit the crucial banality of “Applause,” which suggests the generation of discursive public spheres for popular culture outside the bounds of critique.
As we inaugurate ARTPOP and a Gaga Stigmata under ARTPOP, I believe it is crucial to focus on ekphrasis as a methodological tool for generating discursive spheres for its products. Rather than clinging on to criticality and its ailing and aging methods, I propose we engage the Classical and Medieval discursive form of conceptual ekphrasis – of artistic description – which describes the experience of art through poetic and dramatic modes of engagement in a manner that captures both formal, but also conceptual understandings of art.
If not, we are bound to miss out on too much.
Roland Betancourt is a doctoral candidate in the History of Art Department at Yale University writing a dissertation entitled, “The Proleptic Image: An Investigation of the Medium in Byzantium.” In April 2012, he co-chaired a major symposium at Yale entitled Byzantium/Modernism on the mutually generative collision of Byzantium and Modernism. In addition to various other projects, he is currently editing a special volume of the journal postmedieval entitled, “Imagined Encounters: Historiographies for a New World,” which asks scholars to suspend disbelief and create cross-temporal analyses using artworks and theories from different historical spaces.
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