I spent a good deal of time yesterday thinking about cruelty--and about other various manifestations of the dark side of humanity. Here’s how it happened.
As a part of my “Art of Outrage” series for Artscene Visual Radio, I had recorded a piece on Kim Jones—an artist who had gained notoriety, back in the mid 1970s, for a performance piece that had included the burning of live rats in a cage, an act of such appalling cruelty that it—understandably, rightly—caused a storm of outrage in the Los Angeles community, and a great controversy in the art world between those who defended Jones's right to make his "statement" as an artist and those who condemned the performance as being incompatible with the aims of art. I myself, at the time--in the context of widely-distributed images of the flaming bodies of naked Vietnamese children after a US napalm attack--was inclined to see it as a dreadful and forceful reminder of the depths of depravity to which humanity can sink.
Before my segment was even put out on the AVR site, there came a protest from Rachel Rosenthal--an artist who is recognized as a pioneer of performance art, and who has truly laid herself on the line in her own bold work. A fierce defender of the rights of animals--and as one who had rescued a rat from a subsequent performance by Kim Jones and raised him (the rat) to be a companion and a justly celebrated personality in the art world under the name of Mister Wattles--Rachel was outraged that the man responsible for that terrible event should still receive attention as an artist. After receiving a copy of her email, I called and spoke to her, recording her powerfully-expressed view for inclusion in my segment.
To tell the truth, Rachel had poked an uncomfortable finger in my conscience. Was I contributing to the celebration of a monster posing as an artist? Was my AVR piece in some way condoning his brutal action, even though it had taken place some thirty years before? Had I simply fallen into that easy trap of excusing everything in the name of art, defending the indefensible? And--in view of my years-long embrace of Buddhist principles--was I proving myself guilty by association (and implied approval) of an act of inexcusable cruelty toward other living beings?
There is no easy answer to these questions. I do believe that Jones--especially in subsequent work in which he has abandoned such practices--has provoked some valuable, if discomforting thought about our human nature. In the guise of his alter ego "Mudman", he has walked through city streets with an ungainly burden of protruding sticks and chicken wire, naked or near-naked, his face masked, his body smeared with clay--a figure challenging all those he meets with the sight of his primal vulnerability and by extension the vulnerability we all share, as human beings. His outer burden has reminded us of the ungainly mess we carry within, and which we dread to show to others. Through exposing his, he confronts us with our own dark side. His myriad, often phantasmagorical drawings, over the years, have contributed to his investigation of the awful proximity of the human and the inhuman. Still, the protest Rachel raises is one the speaks loudly to my conscience, and I am thankful to her for not allowing me to pass this by too easily. It will continue to haunt me.
And... in the afternoon--again in pursuit of material for my "Art of Outrage" series--I went to visit the collection of Tim Campbell and Steve Machado. The first painting I saw was one of a dismembered solider, killed in battle, the remains of his body prostrate and abandoned on the street. Gut-wrenching. Campbell--he's the collector: Steve goes along, for the most part tolerantly, with his partner's obsession!--has put together an art collection that's highly individual and unusual, to say the least. His interest is art that rebels against the status quo, that questions authority, that deplores domination and abuse, and defends the marginalized and the downtrodden. Most people wouldn't have it in their house. Much of it is simply too disturbing.
The gay son of a Southern Baptist preacher, Tim learned early the need to be outspoken if he was to survive, and he clearly feels a bond with artists who share that sensibility. After showing me around the collection, he gave me one of the best interviews I've ever done--clear, concise, honest to the core, forceful, and sure of his own vision. It was refreshing to meet a man who takes his humanity so seriously, and is ready to be upfront about its darker side. Along the way, as we toured the house, I noticed a number of religious artifacts that recalled Tim's evangelical background, mostly in the context of his anger at its ignorance and hypocrisy.
I was also interested and, yes, pleased to notice a number of Buddhist artifacts as we made the tour, remarkable for their serenity amidst the turmoil. I meant to ask Tim about these, but I didn't get around to it in the interview that we recorded. Another time...