The Art of TransgressionCory Panshin on October 15, 2010
After I’d finished writing “The Great Migration Revisited” last week, I kept thinking about the mythic implications of sex with Neanderthals — and that led me, by a natural progression, to thinking about Lady Gaga.
I’d started thinking about Lady Gaga anyway, because she’s clearly important in terms of the cultural cycles that I’ve been charting and I want to understand where she fits in. But I haven’t been able to make much of her as a singer — her music frankly sounds to me like warmed-over bad-girl pop and I don’t hear anything new in it.
Lady Gaga as performance art, though — that’s something I can work with. So I took a book out from the library, Lady Gaga: Critical Mass Fashion by Lizzy Goodman, and I’ve been studying it for clues.
The first thing that strikes me about Gaga is the progression of her style, which went from basic rock ‘n’ roll outlaw in 2007, to hot blond with lots of leg and cleavage in 2008 — and then suddenly in early 2009 to a variety of outfits in which the human form seems to vanish under patterns of geometrical abstraction: triangular plates, spikes, bubbles, hoops, or disco ball mirrors.
As I wrote some months ago, in an entry about the relationship of clothing styles to the cultural cycles, “Geometrical fashions, which take over as a dominant partnership fades and reach their peak with the counterculture … not only downplay the female figure by camouflaging the natural curves of the waist and hips but subordinate it to a linear geometrical outline.”
Geometrical…camouflaging…linear. All of that fits Lady Gaga to a T — but she takes it to an extreme. Goodman’s book describes the result as being more “freakish” than sexy, and that’s certainly true. Gaga’s outfits shriek “I am a sexual being” — but there is nothing womanly about them, no swelling curves of bust and waist and hip, nothing that relates to the standard sexual imagery of fertility and motherhood. The ultimate effect is deliberately androgynous rather than feminine.
That kind of imagery is exactly what might be expected, however, of a moment when the democracy-and-chaos partnership is breaking down and taking with it all the old dualities. Gaga’s look is very comparable to the early mini-skirts of 1964-65, which arrived at an equivalent point in the cycle, and particularly to the famous Yves Saint Laurent “Mondrian” dress from the fall of 1965 with its starkly geometrical design.
But thinking about Lady Gaga in the context of thinking about sex with Neanderthals made me realize that there’s an even more important aspect to her style than its linear geometry — and that is its air of deliberate transgression. Her outrageous fashions do not exist merely for the sake of being breathtakingly bizarre. They are part of an overall message about challenging gender norms, challenging assumptions about the human body, and challenging beliefs about the purpose of art.
Again, the closest parallel might be found in 1964-65, when Andy Warhol began assaulting the dominant culture of his time with films that used shock and outrage as a way of blasting the audience loose from conventional expectations.
Transgression is a very powerful aspect of any countercultural period, but it seems to flourish most actively at the beginning and at the end — that is, before the full force of countercultural idealism takes hold and then again as it starts to fall away into studied decadence. Not surprisingly, Gaga’s own touchstones are figures from the glam-rock period of the early 70’s, like David Bowie, Freddie Mercury, and Marc Bolan.
That same early 70’s transgressive attitude was also central to The Rocky Horror Picture Show — and it’s no coincidence that two different stage revivals are currently in the works. The time is ripe for that particular message to come back round again.
It seems, however, that the transgressive impulses of the counterculture — along with its geometrical fashions — are not tied to any particular vision, but arise out of the sense of infinite possibility that accompanies the final collapse of every dominant partnership.
As I wrote some months ago:
Every vision is born from a glimpse of something outside all ordinary human experience. In its early stages it possesses the ability to lead our perceptions beyond the everyday world, and that ability is intensified as it reaches its countercultural peak. For a brief moment, the vision appears to have the power to overturn all personal, social, and cosmic norms, dissolve all boundaries, and reveal the true face of reality in all its wonder and terror.
But that sense of apocalyptic wonder cannot be sustained for long. Once it burns out and the vision is pressed into mediating the concerns of society, the original magical quality quickly drains away. The democracy-and-chaos partnership which formed in the late 70’s has guided our culture for the last 35 years, but it retains only the discarded garments of chaos. The original spirit has long since moved on.
But there is yet another crucial aspect to the transgressive, one that goes beyond the dissolution of boundaries and the overturning of cultural norms. That is its intimate relationship to the sacred.
It’s an anthropological truism that in societies which are ruled by rigid taboos, the gods and legendary heroes are regularly described as violating those taboos. They have sex with their sisters, insult their grandmothers, and do things you’d think no proper hero would dream of doing. And yet they are regarded as sacred, not despite their actions but because of them. It seems as though their transgressions actually serve as proof of their divinity.
The sanctioned clowns and madmen of many archaic societies are part of this same tradition of transgression, as were the sacred prostitutes of ancient times. So are the festivals at which everything turns into its opposite and the dualities of male and female, old and young, human and animal, alive and dead are temporarily confounded.
Secularized versions of these rituals of transgression persist in the carnivals which we still celebrate at or near the cross-quarter days of fall and winter, most notably Halloween and Mardi Gras. These special points in the calendar were anciently seen as cracks in the world through which eldritch forces could enter — and at such times even today the living take on the guise of the undead, pirates and other outlaws abound, and a variety of gender-bending costumes and antics are on display.
Lady Gaga is clearly aware of this on some level and has been deliberately presenting herself as a sacred icon, submerging her personal identify in that of the symbolic being she has created. Tattooed on the inside of her left arm is a quote from the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke which speaks of her absolute dedication to her art. It reads, in translation, “Confess to yourself in the deepest hour of the night whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. Dig deep into your heart, where the answer spreads its roots in your being, and ask yourself solemnly, Must I write?”
But if Gaga is resonating to the pulse of the oncoming counterculture, she is not the only one. Our society’s most prominent sanctioned clowns, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, appear to be grooving to the same beat. They may swear that the October 30 date of their upcoming Rally to Restore Sanity/March to Keep Fear Alive is of absolutely no significance — but at the same time, they’ve acknowledged that it is the day before Halloween and have invited participants to come in costume.
There is a further suggestion of profound mythic significance in the explicit duality of the Stewart/Colbert rallies. They are not merely a single event but two counterpoised gatherings occupying the same space and time — one dark and one light, one devoted to fear and one to sanity.
And this too is deeply appropriate, for the truly sacred is not merely transgressive, not dedicated simply to violating boundaries. The ultimate goal is the reconciliation of opposites and the establishment of a higher harmony to heal the fragmentation of the world.
It is too soon just yet to tell whether the comedians will be able to bring off their mystery play in the manner it deserves. Tonight’s Daily Show — at which the two gatherings were officially merged into a two-headed monster titled “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” — was hardly the mythic reconciliation the situation calls for. But regardless of what happens on October 30, I believe we are on the cusp of a major turning-point in the zeitgeist.
The three visions which defined the twentieth century all achieved the reconciliation of opposites through a kind of leveling process — scientific materialism by reducing the rich variations of the physical world to the interplay of atoms, democracy by eradicating social distinctions, and chaos by denying the existence of higher structure and purpose.
In contrast, the successors to those visions — holism, multiculturalism, and creative imagination — present a far more diverse and intricate picture of the world. Taken all together, they portray existence as an elaborate dance in which parts repeatedly join together to form complex wholes and wholes function through the mutual harmony of their parts.
It will be interesting, to put it mildly, to see what mythic and practical changes occur in our society as this new understanding of reality takes hold.
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