Published in the Foundation for Contemporary Arts 2016 Grants Booklet
On 11/12/2015, Missy Elliott “dropped" her latest Where They From (WTF, which of course is also What The Fuck) and she uses almost every twentieth-century avant-garde practice from Dadaist costumes, extreme theatrical makeup, and even marionettes representing herself and Pharrell Williams. These visual elements, once so provocative or distancing, now come packaged in a commercially successful hip-hop production by a powerful female musician/producer who also explores gender and sexuality in fresh ways. It reminds me of the value of artistic experimentation—you never quite know where those experiments will go and how they will be received and used years hence.
We are in a moment of intense cultural colliding and conflating. Who is appropriating what and why, and for what purpose? And oh my, what is the single artist to do—whether poet, dancer, sculptor, media developer, coder? For me, it is always: am I asking the questions that need to be answered?
Often we ask questions that are already answered and frankly we don't like the answers. What is feminine in the age of transgender? How do we speak across racial and class divides? Can the hyper-commodification of art do any good for anyone other than the artists, gallerists, and collectors involved? No one wants to hear about an artist starving in a garret. But many artists are starving. Many artists continue to be outside those seemingly ever-expanding portals to the art marketplace. But we all know that some wares sell well and sell out and others are returned, marked down, and in the case of literature, pulped. So then the questions may be about money, or greed, or the market, or TO HELL WITH THAT MARKET because isn't that where the avant-garde stood—outside of/on the edges of/in the back or the front of/markets. This is where artists find ways to answer those difficult questions without framing it all in the name of buy and sell, even as, of course, we want an audience for what we produce. Like I said, sometimes I don't quite like the answers to my questions.
I came to New York City in the early 1970s out of a great need to see something different, meet those who did not look like me, who had different kinds of ideas. I was not running from my Southern roots, I was walking towards a way of becoming. On my path were experiments in theater (Mabou Mines! The Performing Garage, Meredith Monk); poetry (St. Mark's Poetry Project, readings in bars, lofts, even a speakeasy, mimeo magazines); and music (new music ensembles at The Kitchen, jazz in lofts and warehouses, and occasionally in clubs and concert halls where I heard David Murray, The World Saxophone Quartet, Eddie Jefferson, Betty Carter, Anthony Braxton, and Cecil Taylor); and dance and performance art (Joan Jonas on a beach); and conceptual pieces (Gordon Matta-Clark's house in New Jersey cut down the middle, but you could—and I did—walk through it); and Laurie Anderson and her weeping violin at Jean Dupuy's salons. The artists were varied, committed, mostly poor (not all), and glad to be making work outside of the media glare. Out of that complex activity, I learned about discipline, about risk, about failure, and yes, about success. How artists came together to make work, to work with each other, to critique and challenge each other, was and is thrilling to me four decades later. As a poet, I learned persistence even as much of what I wrote was rejected. As an audience, I learned to trust the power of ideas and difficult expression. As a listener, I opened my ears to musicians from Joan La Barbara to Anthony Davis, to early punk and hip-hop. One does not have to be an experimental artist, writer, or musician to deeply appreciate and feel nurtured by the work that goes several steps beyond what one thinks one should or could do. Artists lead in so many ways and other artists take what they can from the leavings.
The two questions I ask are: Where Is The Love? and Who Do We Trust? The world was violent in 1974 when I came here; it is even more violent and volatile now—at one point we celebrated the end of the Vietnam War, and John Lennon rightly wrote, “War is Over! If You Want It." Did we? Can charity and compassion flourish in a world so dedicated to greed on all levels and now fighting death cult ideologies? Can we even think about peace? Artists across the globe face censure, violation, and death for doing art—this is the twenty-first century. Where Is the Love?
Who Do We Trust? We have to trust our artistic selves. We are not “creatives" making more stuff for people to plug into their smartphones. We need to enlarge our idea of the human, what humans can do. When I think of John Cage and Merce Cunningham, I see the traces of their active imaginations—the way we talk about silence and beats in music, how the body moves or stands in dance—they made huge differences by answering the questions they had about silence, chance, motion, stillness, space. And out of their and Jasper Johns's interrogations came work that has changed how we think. That is power. That is why commercial artists—from music, to architecture, to design—cull the experiments of the avant-garde. When I came to New York City, I did not fall down a rabbit hole—I fell into a world of many delights, some despair, and extraordinary creativity. I am so thankful to have taken the chance. And it is thrilling that the Foundation for Contemporary Arts finds ways to allow all kinds of artists to take chances, try new ways, fail, and yes, sometimes succeed. My capacity to grow as a poet is a direct result of this kind of generosity. The avant-garde really does not exist, but if it did it would foment an organization like the Foundation. And it would share that generosity with the entire world (in and out of hip-hop videos).
Patricia Spears Jones is a poet based in New York. She received a Grants to Artists award in 1996.