Tag: choice

“She Had A Choice”

Bode-Museum, Berlin, statue, sculpture, man, woman, assault

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission. (Collection Bode-Museum Berlin)

Today’s news about Placido Domingo was shocking to some and not to others. I spent much of the day pouring over various reactions, curious to take the temperature of the online classical world. What was and is most striking throughout various forums I read has been the divisive nature of the comments, sharply moving between “finally” and “bunch of lying opportunists.” Addressing this in writing offers a rumination on something I’ve not commented on very much publicly. I’m not one to shriek about anything on social media (those who know me know I do that enough in-person over anything I feel strongly about), but with news of one of the most famous living opera figures being accused of sexual harassment, the time feels nigh, and so.

I met Placido Domingo as a wide-eyed child who was pulled out of school to attend a record store one blustery Toronto afternoon. My mother smiled graciously when it came to be our turn. I only later understood the looks exchanged between the tenor and my starstruck (if very beautiful) mother. He told me to “study hard” and off we went. Years later my mother and I would watch Three Tenors concerts now and again, and after her passing, I got to see Domingo myself, in a concert version of Thais at the Salzburg Festival, and later in Macbeth at LA Opera. In any business the reality of transaction is part of overall functionality; scratch my back, I scratch yours. Within the arts world there exists, with equal if not greater presence, a spirit of what I’d call relationality, where the bonds of positive relationships power much of what is experienced within a live performance, in opera or in concert. Those relationships are, quite often, sacred things, creating webs-within-webs of connectivity between artists, administrators, musicians, designers, directors, managers, dramaturgs, répétiteurs, and the many, many others who help to make classical things happen. Transactionality, and more vitally, relationality, create a frequent blurring between art and life, a blur which often manifests itself in some of the most magical and unexpected ways, but within that world, there are barriers people (professionals, that is) know not to cross. Others – those in positions of power – step over the lines without a second thought; they know they can. Power affirms a feeling of impunity, entitles poor behaviour, highlights narcissism. When your norm is applause and adoration, you don’t care about blurring lines, because the rules don’t apply. This, of course, is where abuse happens.

Bode-Museum, Berlin, statue, sculpture, man, woman, assault

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission. (Collection Bode-Museum, Berlin)

Those who’ve been shrieking about opportunistic ingenues tend to point directly at Instagram as evidence of their claims, and while one might suspect any number of young artists would happily go to some effort to meet such powerful (and obviously useful) men, in this age of carefully curated selfies and meticulously groomed feeds, yes, sex sells, and always has; the classical world is not immune. (In working on a story about Instagram and opera last year, one friend commented that the platform has become “one giant competition to see which ingenue can pout the hardest –never mind the singing.”) It could be reasonably said that young women in the arts are more empowered than ever when it comes to presenting the image they wish the world to see; there are others who claim they’ve experienced instances of ingenues coming on to those in power (directors, conductors, major leads). I would argue such instances are perfect examples of women feeling they need to play into a male-gaze game for professional advancement. But, you may say, isn’t that how the world works? My question is, why should it have to be in 2019?

In my own younger days, I was agog at any attention from men whose work I enjoyed; they were indeed gods to me. (One of Domingo’s accusers speaks of him in similar terms.) Yes, it’s dangerous to put people on pedestals, but it happens with predictable regularity in the arts world, and it can be hard to see our heroes as fallible beings who are capable of screw-ups, let-downs, and generally terrible behaviour. When I was the receiving end of some flirtation by a famous man in my 20s, I remember being flattered, stunned, bewildered (“he’s paying attention to little old me?!“) – it was a sort of high I didn’t want to come down from. I did not possess the maturity or self-confidence to be able to discern whether or not such attentions were appropriate or sincere; I only knew it was exciting, addictive, and good at quelling the blizzard of negative inner voices, all of them crying for validation. If such validation happened to be coming from the object of worship… what better thing? I felt I was getting ahead; I felt, as a twenty-something stuck in a series of dead-end jobs, I was finally progressing. I felt the true me was being heard, seen, accepted, celebrated.  Of course, it wasn’t the “true me” at all that was being recognized but the part handy to the powerful man. I gave away a version of myself, quickly and freely, in exchange for the validation I thought I needed, the feeling of advancement conflated with acceptance and affection with equal determination.

Altes Museum, Berlin, sculpture, naked, couple, man, woman, sex, face, stone, art

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission. (Collection Altes Museum, Berlin)

It’s tough when the only arena in which you might hope to experience intimacy (or its fantasy-laden pastiche) is a transactional one. Some powerful men will, quite purposefully, sing a siren’s song to one’s doubting inner voices, a song that promises success, wholeness, joy, that says “I can give you all this…“. Attention, flirtation, the promise of success: narcotics for a young woman with a shaky sense of both herself and her worth. It’s hard to say “no” to all of that. It’s hard to say “no” to someone you idolize, who is powerful, who says he’ll help you, who convinces you that he thinks you’re talented and sexy and brilliant. It’s hard to say “no” to the attentions of a powerful man when you, as a young woman in a far less advantageous position, feel you need those attentions, and you need to accept them to climb the ladder of success. You don’t recognize you’re being groomed because you don’t have the tools for that, much less to refuse and walk away. And even if you do recognize the predatory nature of the attention, what “choice” do you actually have? Would it be right to call it “consent”?

The use of that word has been widespread in today’s online discussions. I take particular issue with its misuse because it begs the question: from which environment — mental, emotional, intellectual, societal — does that consent arise? From which vantage point? From whose history? From which influences? A woman’s history with that word, and its power in her life (to say nothing of the culture in which she was raised), may have taught her to think of it in ways that are the precise opposite of its true meaning and lived application, thus leading to a deep internalization of patriarchal notions of power – who holds it, why, how. So I ask again: whose consent? In what spirit was such consent made and given? Was it even a conscious decision, made with the full faculties of reason, rationality, maturity, and experience? “Consent is consent!” some may argue, “Stop twisting things!”

lucke grimace

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission. (Collectiion Bode-Museum, Berlin)

But the situation itself is twisted, because current ideas of who holds power and why have been internalized to the point of a total blindness that does not and literally cannot allow for empathy (which extends to much of the current political discourse as well). The perception of what true consent actually is, in and of one’s self, is (and was) a ridiculously complicated (though it shouldn’t be) matter when one is starting out in a notoriously difficult industry which, in itself, is adverse to change and evolution. A woman may be “consenting” because she feels there’s no other path. She may be “consenting” because she truly believes this is just how things are done, and have been done, in the industry. She may “consent” because she was raised in a culture that says men are always horny, always the boss, and always have more power than you. She may be “consenting” because the idea of courting rejection from someone she idolizes is too painful to bear, her sense of self being so closely tied up and twisted with the person she’s presented – and it may well be career suicide to say “no.” From what I’ve read today there are a number of people who simply don’t comprehend the vast power of someone like Placido Domingo – though there are just as many who do; there isn’t real “choice” in dealing with someone who has sat so high, for so long, on the throne of his own classical kingdom. Failure to recognize this constitutes the worst form of ignorance, willful or not. The exercise of choice within such a context is illusory at best. A powerful man can sometimes be very clear about the sex-in-exchange-for-opportunities thing, and so a young woman’s choice (so-called) between offering sexual favors to ascend professionally, and not having any professional opportunities at all, is hardly a climate in which any human should be expected to operate. It certainly isn’t one in which the notions of choice and consent can be freely exercised.

Bode-Museum, Berlin, della Robbia, face, art, painting, fresco, round, circle, doubt, expression

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission. (Collection Bode-Museum, Berlin)

I want to believe that human evolution is moving far past a place where sexual transactionality within the classical industry is perceived as normal and fine and even (good grief) empowering for women. I believe serious damage – creative, emotional, spiritual – is being wrought through the perpetuation of a casting-couch culture, a damage only felt decades down the line, as women face the fallout of their perceived choices, ones made for reasons wholly unconnected with true advancement. New worlds are opening up as more people feel emboldened to come forwards and say: I don’t accept this as our system. This is not the key we should play in; this is not the aria we should continue to sing. This tempo stinks; let’s rewrite the whole thing together.

It takes a lot, to risk saying this in public, much less living it –to risk being perceived as a flake, a golddigger, a finger-wagger, an apologist, a malicious figure of angry embitterment. One must continually acknowledge that we operate within a system that’s been set up with the most strict and narrow conventions (of race, sex, opportunity), but we love the classical arts enough to push for change. It is a risk, and  areward, to be truly heard, seen, recognized, accepted for who one is, without the thousand masks we wield on a daily basis to please our respective audiences. To the ladies who spoke up: thank you, and encore.

SLUT.

Here I am, almost seven months since my last blog, writing about the word “slut.” It’s strange, what passes for writing inspiration these days, especially since I promised in the past I’d be doing less personal-life-issues blogging. But, this word, and its usage, occupies a strange place in my mind.

Perhaps I’m blogging about this now, at this time, as I undergo some radical life changes, assessing and re-assessing the role authenticity plays in my life, and how sexuality is key to embracing that authenticity in a more complete and satisfying way.

Sex columnist Dan Savage’s response to a young woman being called a “slut” hit some buttons, mainly because I have been called the same thing, by a woman who is friends with my mother, no less. it wasn’t said in front of me, and perhaps I wasn’t meant to ever know of it, but, it didn’t surprise me, to once again be called “slut,” especially by another woman.

In dealing with female friends in the past, I used to feel a particular pressure to cover up, dress down, go shapeless, never be too revealing. That was thanks to a youthful lack of self-confidence in my appearance, but it was also a way to fit in with my chums’ idea of how females “should” look: no bare shoulders, no decolletage, always tasteful and subtle. There was still glammy makeup and vampy nails, and a growing passion for lingerie. Like the veiled ladies I used to see buying hoards of lacy knickers in Harrod’s years before, I felt I had a fabulous secret to savor hidden underneath the high-necked velvet tops and long skirts.

Gradually, I began to bust out of the mold. I attended a concert in the late 1990s wearing a tight, low-cut, vintage halter-dress; the concert wasn’t great, but boy, did I feel good, powerful even. Such boldness complemented an already entrenched taste for literary erotica, sensuous writing, and the naughtier side of history. That’s to say nothing of how much bellydancing aided in recognizing and embracing what God gave me too. Such pursuits helped me gain the confidence to claim my womanly body as my own, to express the person it contains, outright, -through dress, through manner, through every single visual and aural element shrieking “AUTHENTIC” loudly, proudly, finally. I realized the absurdity in dressing -and thinking, speaking, choosing -just to make other people comfortable.

None of this is to say I don’t believe in work-appropriate wear (I do), or that I don tube tops and micro-mini skirts daily (I don’t) -in fact, I’m typing this in jeans and a t-shirt. But stepping out in public still, inevitably, frustratingly, invites judgment: Your jeans are too tight; your top is too low. (Never mind that I’m wearing bare-bones-makeup and tiny stud earrings.) Perhaps it’s the nature of human beings to judge, maybe it’s our madly media-heavy, super-connected world making things worse (those “things” mainly related to the business of cultivating female insecurity around looks). Maybe it’s that depressingly common female competitiveness rearing its ugly head. Does the awareness of such human fallibility make it okay to call someone a “slut,” a woman who’s taken years to come to terms with body, soul, flesh, spirit, and all the mixed twisted vital veins pulsating, glowing between them? Why this desire for a slut and a saint, at once? A vixen / mother? A seductress / soother? Peacemaker / homemaker?

Choice is a funny thing, and sometimes it’s in embracing choice fully we court the snap judgments and narrow perceptions of others. It’s stunning, and sadly unsurprising, to be called a “slut”in 2013. Dan Savage suggested such the use of such a term is rooted in jealousy: she’s getting laid, you’re not, how shitty. The reality is more simple than that, I think: even if you’re not technically getting laid, if you look like you could, conceivably, be perceived as somehow sexually desirable (and the assumption is almost always to men), boom, out come the knives. One has to, as Savage suggests, take the mindset of, “who gives a shit what those bitches think?” Right. But I wish they didn’t have to be bitches. I wish things weren’t set up thusly. I wish I could have more pity in my heart, more consistently, for those who close their minds and hearts to others. Walt Whitman puts it a bit more poetically in I Sing The Body Electric:

Womanhood, and all that is a woman, and the man that comes from woman,
The womb, the teats, nipples, breast-milk, tears, laughter, weeping, love-looks, love-perturbations and risings,
The voice, articulation, language, whispering, shouting aloud,
Food, drink, pulse, digestion, sweat, sleep, walking, swimming,
Poise on the hips, leaping, reclining, embracing, arm-curving and tightening,
The continual changes of the flex of the mouth, and around the eyes,
The skin, the sunburnt shade, freckles, hair,
The curious sympathy one feels when feeling with the hand the naked meat of the body,
The circling rivers the breath, and breathing it in and out,
The beauty of the waist, and thence of the hips, and thence downward toward the knees,
The thin red jellies within you or within me, the bones and the marrow in the bones,
The exquisite realization of health;
O I say these are not the parts and poems of the body only, but of the soul,
O I say now these are the soul!

(Photo of me from my Flickr photostream

Change The Frame

Life has a way of turning out exactly like you didn’t plan. And yet it’s through the labyrinth of choice that we arrive at a new destination.

I made a big choice a few weeks back, and am still living with the reverberations. As befits my culture-vulture tendencies, I tend to turn to art as a means of trying to comprehend (or at least accept) the power of my choices. Lately Andy Warhol has been a big inspiration. He knew his worth as an artist and a contributor to cultural conversation, and understood the exchange that happened (monetary, mainly) was a result of a larger system that he not only milked beautifully, but understood more keenly than many other cultural figures, even now.
Maybe part of my inspiration is derived from the bright yellow poster for The Andy Monument hanging on my fridge. When I look at it I remember first catching sight of Rob Pruitt‘s gorgeous monument to Andy Warhol in Union Square just steps from where The Factory was once located. It was a mild, breezy day, and the public space heaved with Saturday shoppers and curious tourists who would approach the silver-chrome statue slowly, eyebrows scrunched and head cocked, camera-phone on the ready. Some people knew who it was, some didn’t, but most people were in awe of its sheen, its shine, its winking, blinking surface that glinted and glowed in the late afternoon sunshine. Some posed beside the monument; others clicked away, but it wasn’t a manic picture-taking frenzy like you’d see beside other statues of famous people.

In the weeks since, people have been leaving Brillo boxes and cans of Campbell’s soup at the statue’s feet, which feels like a fitting tribute. The frenzied retail activity that happens around the statue feels like a more apt honor, but, for all his love of mainstream culture, Warhol doesn’t command the same level of frenzy as, say, the Sistine chapel. In many senses, he defined the way we understand, perceive, and experience mainstream culture in all its bawdy, gaudy glory, and is so steeped in every aspect of our modern being as to be indistinguishable from it.
His influence was examined last month at a chat held by the Public Art Fund (who are behind the Warhol statue) at The New School. With artist Rob Pruitt present, the panel, comprised of artist/writer Rhonda Lieberman, cultural critic Wayne Koestenbaum, and Public Art Fund Director/Chief Curator Nicholas Baume, discussed Warhol’s significance and offered their own memories of the famed master of cultural collection and distillation.
While Baume and Lieberman offered heady, thought-provoking deconstructions of Warhol’s work, and Kostenbaum gave a cool, Beat-like remembrance befitting his poetic background, Pruitt’s tribute was halting, shy, and entirely unplanned. His palpable nervousness was a charming touch to the (all-too-brief) details he gave regarding the process of creating the statue: an assistant did a preliminary drawing (which he confessed to disliking), his art-collector friend modeled (right down to the wig), the statue is hollow, a chrome coating was a natural choice. He also shared his delight at the effect the statue had upon its unveiling in late March. When questioned about Warhol’s influence on his work, Pruitt asserted the ubiquitousness of the artist’s reach, noting the difficulty of parsing things as “Andy” or “Mine,” especially in this day and age of unoriginality-as-the-original-art-impulse. Pruitt also shared a wonderful personal story that, even now, a month on, continues to inspire delight and awe.
When Pruitt first moved to New York as an aspiring artist in the 1980s, he had a dream of working at The Factory. He rang the buzzer of the famed building, introduced himself as only a confident young man can, and, amazingly, was allowed in. He met Warhol, who explained his duties as an unpaid intern between questions about Pruitt’s background as an ice cream scooper at Baskin Robbins (apparently the artist thought Pruitt could get them tons of free ice cream) and fielding dozens of inquiries from his Factory worker-bees. Pruitt recalled the experience with saucer-eyes, before confessing that he didn’t take the internship: “I had to make money.” He took a job in the glove department of Macy’s, something that, according to Koestenbaum, “Andy would’ve respected more.”
There’s something curiously inspiring about this story. It got me thinking about the value we place on our activities, especially in the age of digital, where (especially as writers and artists) there is an expectation of “free” -a culture that has become a kind of monstrously growing pudding, one that keeps being fed by people who should know better. Whither worth? Everyone has to make a living -and has a right to. It can be, as Warhol serves to remind us, mundane, fantastical, or a mix of both (proudly), but we live in a culture where money is a vital form of energetic exchange. Those 15 minutes aren’t enough -you should either make money from it, or pay for it. Right? Wrong? It’s worth pondering, especially in an age where we choose to take and give things -talents, time, energy -without a thought. I wonder what Warhol would say.
Change. Choice. Art. Energy. They all seem linked, more than ever.

Dance! Clay! Play!

Today I bicycled down to my local summer jazz festival. This little girl caught my attention -and I imagine, the attention of the other onlookers, too. She did some fantastic free, interpretive dance to a jazz trio (a vocal-less jazz trio, I should add), shaking, twirling, hopping, and bobbing her head. It was incredible and inspiring to witness her visceral reaction to a form of music many people find obtuse and difficult.

Watching her also brought to mind the hoary old argument of to-have-kids or not-to-have-kids. I’ve heard a lot of this sort of thing lately, and though I’ve already made my choice, in no way did it take away from my enjoyment of watching this little one rejoice in the incredible flexibility of form and the wonder of sound.

Part of the jazz fest included a street dedicated to artisanal work. There was a section where children could craft their own clay sculptures. Tiny creatures, some imagined, some real, all done with the delicate grace only young fingers possess.

Looking at the sculptures, the dancing figures, the tiny hands on balloons and the wide eyes staring agog, amazed, delighted at the sounds floating through the air, I can’t say I felt any worse in my choice to remain childless, but I also acknowledge the special magic and unique, open energy children bring. They remind us to stop, to smile, and most importantly, to play.

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