A couple of weekends ago, I went to a talk given by the curator of an art museum. The curator used the example of an exhibit he was currently working on: a retrospective of the artist Alma Thomas.
Her work sings to me. Mosaic geometries that vibrate with hue and saturation. Spheres that radiate color, trapping the eye. Blue that falls apart like leaves, or rain or snow. Colors that work together, in spite of their instinct to clash. Brightness falling from the air. Spectral chaos contained in matte precision.
A member of the Washington Color School movement, Thomas was the first African American female artist to have a solo show at New York’s Whitney Museum. The curator talked about how Thomas vacillated between being an African American artist and being an American artist, and how it was a constant struggle throughout her career. Sometimes, she was just an artist whose work was in conversation with other artists like Morris Louis and movements like Lyrical Abstraction. Other times, she took upon herself the mantle of pioneer, and accepted that she was a black woman operating in a structure that was stacked against her. Much of her identity was filtered through the lens of the Talented Tenth/ Uplift the Race aesthetic but that shifted over time as all things do.
All of this to say: sometimes, I’m a Black and Queer writer. My identity fuels my creativity. Other times, I am just an author who channels the visions my muse sends to me. Sometimes I have to strategically play the Game, other times, I am an Aesthete hermetically sealed in my airless mansion of art. There are times when I want people to read my work and be struck by the numinous quality that’s at the heart of all great work. Yes, my writing centers marginalized people. It is also ‘in conversation’ with other writing, from James Baldwin to Tanith Lee to bell hooks. When you are an artist of color, people often don’t recognize your works complexity. It’s an eternal struggle.
I just got tickets to see the goth-world-neoclassical band Dead Can Dance in April 2020. This might be the seventh or eighth time since I’ve seen them. I’ve also seen solo tours from the Dead Can Dance members Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard. Their somber, majestic and beautiful music has been a constant in my life. I discovered their music (and Cocteau Twins) around the same time I found the writing of Tanith Lee. Lee and DCD are forever linked in my mind.
They are indirectly responsible for my official coming out. I remember back in the late 80s debating whether or not to attend the local LGBT youth group. I was still in the closet (but not to myself). Joining a youth group was a big step for me. I had stood outside the place where the weekly meeting had been held a couple of times and been too chicken to go.
Then, one afternoon, I saw a guy wearing a homemade Dead Can Dance t-shirt. It was like a sign: I would be OK. I joined the youth group, and began the process of coming out.
Thank you, Brendan and Lisa.
I’m looking forward to seeing them live. This time, they’re delving deep into their catalog, performing older and rarely played tracks.
The Google Doodle today features the late Octavia E. Butler. She is one of my muses. Her bleak, imaginative speculative fiction thematically explored the trauma of oppression. She’s known as a Science Fiction writer, but she also wrote horror (Fledgling, and Clay’s Ark qualify).
I heard OEB speak twice. She didn’t read from her fiction. But her speech was as powerful as her fiction. You read my blog post about her speech here (The Parable of Octavia E. Butler).
Muses are the personification of inspiration and are artistically depicted as beautiful women, garbed in flowing gowns, igniting the Artist’s passion and guiding him/her to capture the images in their heads. The concept of the muse as a person or creature comes from Greek mythology, but the idea is entrenched in Western culture to the point that actual living people are retroactively assigned the role: I’m thinking of Wyeth’s Helga and Proust’s Albert(ine). The Muse figure sparks creativity, and goads the artist on. There is a kind of possession that takes place, driving the artist to work at odd hours. She can helpful, a kind of fairy godmother, or a madness-inducing demon. And then there are times when the Muse is dormant. The Muse that cannot be summoned, and drags the artist to self destruction.
In my formative years, I syncretized my childhood imaginary friend with my muse. After all, my imaginary friend actually was female, and, in addition to having witchy powers, she was a writer.I’d often joke that my muse was lazy, distracted, and mean.But as I grew, I began to find the idea of being chained to Inspiration (which is the major aspect of Musedom), both as an idea and a metaphor for writing to be precious and limiting. Inspiration, of course, is very important. We’ve all been compelled to create at the drop of a hat, as soon an image or idea forms in your mind. But the act writing (and other art forms) is mundane and craft-based. Inspiration tends to abandon you at the syntax level. Accordingly, I have changed my conception of the Muse.
Instead of being one person or figure, I make my characters my muse. And I include things like Setting, Mood, and Language as characters. I find that using these things as touchstones, I can (usually) navigate a particularly difficult patch of writing.When you dialogue with your text, ask questions, make it a living thing that you interact with, it takes shape. Then you are no longer at the mercy of the temperamental whims of your muse.
“Up in the Big House, they’re branding niggers!” Danielle Dax gleefully warbles in her song, “Evil Honky Stomp.” A tape-loop of a sinister trumpet plods along with a collage of strummed and plinked sound effects. “Ugly boys with pious mouths,” she coos. The matter of race and the master narrative is skewered and laid bare in this song. Though, “song,” perhaps, is not really accurate. Dax’s first two albums are free-form assemblages of found sound, performance art, and dark parody. Her voice alternates between a high, piercing Kate Bush-like soprano and deep, dark Siouxsie-like contralto. Dax addresses a variety of subjects and issues with her bizarre surrealistic imagery. “Pariah,” a stark synthesizer-driven bit of cold-wave, addresses the racism faced by West Indian immigrants in London, and subsequent work addressed sexism, animal rights, and female genital mutilation. But Dax never took the role of scold. Rather, she was a silver-tongued sibyl, using allegory and arcane allusion. Her first two albums, Pop-Eyes and Jesus Egg That Weptwere all written, produced and performed by Dax by herself. They are a mash-up of various forms of music, ranging from Bollywood pop, madrigals, funk, synth pop and other hybrids. Dax plays, with varying levels of skill, saxophone, flute, sitar, banjo and toy instruments. Later work was more sophisticated, adding psychedelia and electronica to the mix. Her song about the Thatcher years, “Bad Miss M,” is a bouncy country-flavored tune.
Dax left the music scene after a bid to become more mainstream failed to take off. Marketing was probably an issue. Dax had all the makings of an alternative pop star, with her appealing voice and stunning good looks. But her vision was too wacky and uncategorizable. Was she Goth? New Wave? Pop? World Music? Would Siouxsie fans find her too pop? Would Laurie Anderson fans find her too dark? Ultimately, a long bout with illness effectively ended her music career. Today, Danielle Dax (nee, Gardner) is a landscape architect who dabbles in music.
I first heard Stevie Nicks when I was in the 6th Grade. The song “Sara” came on and it was the most magical song I’d ever heard. Then, I was big into disco, and Donna Summer was my idol. What drew me to “Sara” were its gentle chord progressions, the ethereal background chorus, the glimmering guitars, and most of all, that voice. That voice sounded ancient; she sounded like a sibyl, and the haunting impressionistic lyrics (full of starlings, seas, laces) were illuminated by that ancient voice. I did not run out to get the album. At the time, I felt self-conscious about liking “white people” music, so it wasn’t until the 8th grade that I finally bought a Fleetwood Mac album.
Nicks is wildly inconsistent, both as a writer and a singer, and has made some truly terrible music. Her voice is one of the most lived-in voices in pop music. You can practically taste the booze she drank and smell the cigarettes she smoked. The husky, rough texture of her voice is probably the result of her over-indulgence in cocaine, which burned a hole in her nose cartilage. She might have a one octave range and an out-of-control vibrato that makes her sound like a billy goat, but she uses it to great effect. You can catch glimmers of her younger voice, and at other times, she can sound like an ancient queen. She is the triple goddess reincarnated as a rock singer. (Maiden, Matron, and Crone).
Recently, I listened to a live version of her signature song, “Gold Dust Woman,” and was blown away by the rawness of the performance. At the song’s coda, she chants/sings, “Baby, you can’t save me. I’m running in the shadows.” That song is one of her darkest creations, the photo negative of “Sara.” It is a song about self destructive behavior and about addiction, both to drugs and to doomed relationships. Nicks allows her voice to become harsh and grating. At 65 years old, Nicks still has power.
I have a complicated relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe’s work. And I don’t mean his flowers and fruit pictures. The way he fetishizes the black male body disturbs me; he makes me a partner in their objectification. I mean, these men and the light with which they are cast and their poses are undeniably beautiful. But they are just icons, and in a way, no different than the glossy eggplant photo or the calla lilies he captured.
These men are captured in black and white, on film, in the camera’s eye, and in my own. Is the baggage that I bring to these images my own or is it deeper than that?
Back in the early 90s, my then-partner created a video, a mediation on interracial relationships. The video was eventually picked up by the Festival Circuit. The video had showings internationally, including places like Italy and South Africa. I narrated portions of the video, which included a poem by Harlem Renaissance writer Claude McKay, called The Snow Fairy, which could be interpreted as an ode to an interracial encounter. I went to a showing of the video in New York. One of the scenes in the video has me kneading the flesh of my then-partner. When the video finished, the floor opened up for a discussion about what we had seen. One man thought the video was racist. He highlighted the scene where my hands were on the the white flesh of my partner. He thought that scene showed that I was like a slave, pleasing his master.
This incident, for me, encompasses all of the issues I have with this section of Mapplethorpe’s work. The black men on display in his work are ciphers, upon which a viewer’s thoughts/agendas may be placed. Like the men in those photographs, I was a willing participant in an act that could be seen as racist, regardless of intent. The fact that I don’t think so is immaterial; in the video, I was just a symbol, an image. I’ve learned that many of the men that Mapplethorpe photographed were friends, and indeed, lovers with the photographer. Does that change the meaning or doesn’t it?
I identify with the photographer and the photographed.