Wednesday, July 23, 2008

O Superwoman

This bit from a Village Voice interview with one of my favorite artists caught my eye:
I’m not messianic about this. I don’t need to bring my message to the world. I’m a classic case of talking, you know, to the people who agree with me in a lot of ways. And it’s also because I’m a snob, you know. I don’t think art’s a very good way to convince people. This material came into my work not because I was trying to deliver a message, but because I couldn’t get it out of my mind. It just became about that. I’m not a missionary. I’m not trying to convert anyone to see things a certain way, at all. I’m really not. Why do I use political content? Because it’s the crossover with journalism, and with anyone who tells a story.
The sentence I've italicized there is really what I believe distinguishes artmaking from rhetoric, and I think one of the most difficult tasks for an artist is trusting the—I don't know, veracity?—of whatever it is you can't get out of your mind. And when I encounter a book of poems these days, I find I'm looking for evidence of that kind of commitment—the commitment of a ghost to its haunted house. So often I read poems or collections of poems whose reason for being seems merely whimsical or merely rhetorical. Whereas what turns my head is committed to the generally unenviable task of articulating something that other people don't necessarily want to hear—hell, that you don't want to hear.

I find it interesting, though, that in spite of Laurie Anderson's self-deprecating frankness, she still represents her work as that of being the kind of storytelling that's meant to call attention to story-making: in other words, there is still a critical task in hand, even if she knows she's preaching to the converted. Here's the rest of what she had to say in response to the interviewer's question about audiences:
You know, when we were invading . . . or saber-rattling last November about invading Iran, Bush’s story was ‘Here’s an evil dictator with weapons of mass destruction.’ Jaw-dropping, you know. Like, we’d all heard that story before. We saw where that went. But, you know, there was still some people who went, ‘Oh, okay.’ Instead of going, ‘What are you telling that story again for?’ So it didn’t matter than it wasn’t a true story. It mattered that it was a good story, with the evil guy and hidden treasure and all the things that people want. It’s not a complicated one, but it’s got a good cast of characters. So it’s a fantastic time to be doing this kind of work because everybody’s got their story about where we are, where we’re going. ‘We’re going to be at war for 100 years.’ You have to say, you know, ‘Why is he telling that story? Why is he smiling when he’s saying that?’ But I don’t think there’s a lot of that real kind of analysis going on, so that also is what Homeland’s about, you know, stories and how you tell them.
What I like about this is how on the one hand Anderson's standing up for the artist's right—her imperative—to follow what compels her, no matter how strange or redundant that thing might be... and on the other hand, her work performs a task of analysis that is at least potentially socially useful (if only in the sense that it's useful to her and makes it possible for her to go on telling these stories, which clearly some few of us need to hear). That said, other remarks she makes in the interview suggest that for Anderson, the socially useful is beside the point:
- ...part of my downfall in a way is I kind of like the world as it is. I don’t really feel like, ‘Wow, I have to change it.’ I don’t. It’s kind of always fascinating.

- I really do think that we’re here to have a really good time, shallow as that may sound.
At the same time, she's an acute observer: "You know, we voted in an anti-war government in ’04, but they didn’t stop the war because, you know, basically the government doesn’t run the war." But these observations are a part of her storytelling in a way that doesn't, or isn't meant to, motivate or rabble-rouse. At most, you hear that sort of thing and you recognize the truth of it. And what you do with that recognition is up to you.

I'm a fan of Laurie Anderson, probably the first contemporary artist I was ever made aware of, thanks to my friend Rachel who I knew when I was in fifteen and who was in love with her. She gave a tremendous performance as part of Ithaca's Light in Winter festival that we saw a couple of years ago. I hope to catch her in Chicago sometime—I understand she's from here.

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