(Originally published in the Los Angeles periodical High Performance, 1991)
In a perverse way art academicians and their anti-intellectual counterparts were practically made for each other. At one extreme, theorists have refused to acknowledge that their esoteric language means little to anyone untrained in its exclusive, self-reflexive jargon. Maybe that’s why artists and audiences have so little tolerance for “pure” art talk anymore. Meanwhile, the opposition in the anti-intellectual camp has become very eager to dismiss the real value of theoretical discourse in any form. Fundamentalism, nationalism and pragmatism are reduced in their melting pot to white-wash and oversimplify variant kinds of thinking to render it static, fixed or entirely absent. Knowledge defined by either extreme is equally unbecoming.
This schism, however, is the historical backdrop of the avant-garde in this country. In reality, these opposite trends actually assist each other to prop up market guided notions of a barren and depoliticized modern art and they include similar guises: the cult of individual creative genius, the division between high culture and craft, and a pervasive class consciousness in art and in ideas.
Fortunately new awarenesses are being forged. For example, popular culture’s love of parody, combined with cross-over forms of political activism is currently dismantling the dated, deadlocked art and theory treadmill. Many people are beginning to question art to see whether it is emptied of intelligence or designed to talk only about itself. The emerging debate critiques old forms of argument and is becoming a viable subject and art object itself – a little bomb that goes off every time people try to talk about art lately.
“Staged” mock academic panels are an excellent example of the new approach to combine art object and theory with practice. As process art, they adopt a semblance to the thing they analyze. By doing so, they explode stale theoretical ideas from the inside out. Half-scripted, half spontaneous, serious discussion is triggered by the slapstick quality of subverted contexts – these performances range anywhere from heady theory staged in burlesque drag, to bawdy displays at big wig conferences. Slickly parodic, they are a cross between direct action and spoof. In San Francisco where this behavior is rampant, we call it Stand Up Theory.
Many performance venues in this city now feature works that predominantly deal with theory. The revenge of the crumbling ivory tower has found a new twist. Arts schools have been gradually infiltrated by performance artists. So many artist/teachers are now doing these strange hybrid context-specific works that old distinctions between an art piece and its critique are blurring fast. The situation is further complicated by the fact that the source of these pieces also happens to be the very root of the work’s main contention and challenge – the obsolete academic institution that forgot how to teach.
Radicalism, ghettoized by academic mainstreaming in the ‘70s is returning home with a job. Many performance artists are reclaiming the responsibility of the critic by reinserting their own bodies into untested theoretical positions, so the public can scrutinize the fit. This bold re-teaching campaign weans theoretical language away from privileged realms by shifting theory’s epicenter into the street somewhere just outside the classroom, slightly offstage. The return of the hypothetical (or applied arts for that matter) now asks, whose theory is it anyway?
Laura Brun, Margaret Crane, Minnette Lehmann, Maria St. John, Christine Tamblyn, The Theory Girls and other local veteran Stand Up Theorists each translate this question and pose the problem to their specific audiences. They often do so by explicating theoretical models that excluded the very possibility or presence of a female body with the power to speak an otherwise historically male encoded discourse. Some of critic/artist/professor Tamblyn’s best work, for instance, deals specifically with the disruptive force of the female voice as spoken across different contexts.
Most of the theories these women re-hash have culturally masked misogynous or racist underpinnings that become glaringly blatant once they are demonstrated, analyzed, performed. Their “lessons” about theory reveal layers of problems in the language’s content and contexts – often by shifting the power relationships people think the concepts through. A practical example is Maria St. John’s “Mazey By the Way.” In this performance she scrambles compulsory heterosexist psychoanalytic texts with visceral dance improvisations in a way that repeatedly juxtaposed her body and her personal experiences against some classic theory’s internal contradictions. The audience learned the arguments and experienced the exceptions in order to critically formulate their own ideas distinctly related to their own sense of embodied differences.
Stand Up Theory’s main strategy combines intellect with parody as a form of art activism – it reenlists art to deal with life by aesthetically heightening a sense of history, humor and empowerment. Laura Brun suggests performance art’s specific potential for seduction and subjectivity can also be used to promote complex understanding while keeping it fragmented, nonlinear, interrupted, conditional, and, highly responsive. Potential applications could possibly mend the mind/body split of Western philosophy while focusing on ruptures in the nature/culture gender coded cultural facades. Perhaps pluralism could even use Stand Up Theory to put bourgeois anthropology up for grabs.
Depending upon the theory of course, performance seems to best betray how poorly “universal” ideas travel. Therefore, it’s a perfect tool for unpacking the realities of cultural difference previously disowned by art academicians. And it’s no coincidence that most practitioners currently doing Stand Up Theory right now are women. Minnette Lehmann’s stand-up comic cut-ups point to women who act like seamless male academics as poisoned – non-responsive to conditional thinking and bodily desires. Entertaining critical thought also deploys the pragmatist’s anti-theorizing by merely asking which cultural practice is “useful” or not to whom.
There’s something timely and reminiscent about Stand Up Theory’s attempt to mix pop culture with activism while reclaiming the smarts of an avant-garde. Like a currently restyled radio lyric from the ‘60s, “free your mind and your ass will follow” – more than ever, we’re going to need both to dance more freely with each other.