Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Mixed Blessing

The talented Georgia Lyman finds her way through Lee Blessing's shaggy dog story.

Years ago, at the height of the cultural war that inspired Lee Blessing's Chesapeake (at the New Rep through Dec. 16), I was bemoaning said battle over lunch with a friend of mine - a nice, smart, educated lady who happened to be Jewish.

She was (as many were at the time) railing against the Christian Right, who had pulled the plug on the "NEA Four" (i.e., performance artists Karen Finley, Tim Miller, John Fleck and Holly Hughes), and who were attempting to pull the plug on the agency as a whole, too.

She was most outraged, however, by the controversy surrounding Andres Serrano's photograph Piss Christ (below right), which had been partly funded by the NEA, and which depicted a plastic crucifix submerged in the artist's urine.

To her, the outcry against Serrano amounted to censorship (although an ex post facto kind of "censorship," surely). Still, I wondered if she might appreciate the special political problems presented by federal funding of art that was all but designed to offend the religious sensibilities of many (if not most) voters.

Andres Serrano's Piss Christ
"So how would you feel, " I innocently ventured, in the spirit of playing devil's advocate, "about an Andres Serrano photograph of a Star of David submerged in a jar of urine?"

I remember she actually dropped her fork.  A deadly silence descended; she stared at me in horror, as if I'd grown a second head.

"I can't believe you said that," she whispered.  "A Star of David - in a jar of urine??"  She let the terrible gravity of such an act sink in for another moment.  "No real artist would ever do that!" she declared.  "Because that would be offensive!"

You see the problem.  The folks who generally bang the drum the loudest for artists like Serrano and Finley are often the blindest regarding their own biases.  Clearly it would have been extremely easy for the NEA to fund "art" that would have offended my enlightened friend; indeed, if Serrano had simply pissed on a Jewish symbol instead of a Christian one, she'd have been on the barricades, screaming for NEA blood.

And it didn't take long before outside observers (at the late, lamented Spy magazine and elsewhere) were taking note of political groupthink at the NEA, and had begun decrying a log-rolling conspiracy among the organization's judges that promoted politically controversial art with obvious conceptual and formal weaknesses - as long, that is, as it mapped to the accepted ideologies of the academy, the art world, and the audience that David Brooks (in one of his few moments of insight) had memorably dubbed "the bohemian bourgeoisie."

Karen Finley on the Hershey highway in the 80's.
A similar blindness runs through Chesapeake - even though, to be fair, playwright Blessing makes bemused, affectionate fun of the naive "offenses" of the NEA Four (while skirting their edgier, sometimes anal, antics). Blessing clearly has lesbian performer Holly Hughes, and the notorious provocateur Karen Finley (at left) most in mind in his tale of "Kerr" (Georgia Lyman), a performance artist who babbles that art is a form of "domination," and whose greatest claim to fame is a little number in which she recites the "Song of Solomon" as she is disrobed by members of her audience.

No, Kerr, doesn't shove "yams up her ass," as Finley famously did, so she seems sexually anodyne  - still, she's deep into the kind of lefty sloganeering that powered the nude harangues of the 80's, but which has slowly dwindled into the mild-mannered "background" of ironic burlesques like The Slutcracker and The Donkey Show.  (Designer Adrienne Carlile has clothed Lyman in several removable layers, so we wonder whether we might be in for a reprise of Kerr's seven-veils schtick; alas, to the disappointment of the heterosexual male reviewers on hand, this proved just a tease.)

But if we don't get any skin in Chesapeake, we're also stuck with a play that's skin-deep.  Indeed, what Blessing misses entirely is the psychological damage evident in many of "NEA Four" and their ilk.  Karen Finley and Holly Hughes may not have made real art, but they channeled real pain, and during the 80's, a benighted age of sexual plague and official denial, their self-degradations substituted (perhaps in an autistic rather than artistic way) for the political dialogue the commercial theatre was dodging.  Their work may not have been art, but at least it was authentic, and it's hard to think of any performers today who take the kind of personal risks that they did.

Indeed, playwright Blessing is hardly interested in risk at all; Chesapeake substitutes knowing giggles for gasps (intriguingly, although it is styled as a wry tribute to the NEA Four, it probably represents the final triumph of self-awareness over their brand of "edge").  Needless to say, Kerr runs afoul of a tub-thumping Bible Belter, Senator "Therm Pooley" (who sounds like Strom Thurmond crossed with a heat exchanger), and once her funding has been cut, she decides to enact her revenge as a performance: she'll kidnap the senator's beloved Chesapeake Bay retriever - who operates as a living symbol of his white-bread wholesomeness - and record the whole process, thereby wresting back from him the political dialogue.

Frankly, this gambit feels at best oblique, and the first half of Chesapeake is only mildly amusing  - everything's a little too canned and familiar to be gripping, even if the talented Lyman's smokily casual delivery makes a good impression from the start.   Still, Lyman, like the playwright, and even director Doug Lockwood, seems to have forgotten the intensity of the NEA Four (well, Lyman is too young to remember it).  Hence at intermission, my partner could only smile bemusedly and remark, "Well, I had a nice nap . . ."

Luckily, the play gets friskier in its second half, after the dog-napping goes wrong, and in a Freaky-Friday style twist, "Kerr" finds herself transformed into a literal "cur" - she's re-incarnated as Senator Pooley's next canine companion. This means that if anything, the play gets even cuter (and it joins that strange little theatrical club featuring grown women imitating dogs). But her new identity gives Lyman something to throw herself into, and her drily witty canine impressions (and obsessions) are consistently hilarious; you wind up liking the show a little more. Of course by the finish, Kerr has learned something, and Blessing has doggedly (sorry) gotten even more sentimental.  And we have been reminded that "failed art is better than no art at all."  Hmmmm.  Given that Blessing has himself received funding from the NEA, if you called that a moment of unconscious self-critique, I don't think I'd argue.


  1. Karen Finley's "The Jackie Look" at Peadbody Essex Museum (2010) is counted among one of my favorite shows I've ever seen in the region. She becomes a sort of living effigy for Jackie O and mourns her husband, the nation, and eventually chastises the audience for being obsessed with Michelle Obama's arms. A long admirer, I approached her post-performance and asked if I could email her about solo performance. When I asked about direction (specifically, why she directed herself), she told me, "it becomes a statement...as a woman I am directing myself." Whether or not self-direction has been the most effective tool for me, it's been an effective experiment and I found that she was right to some extent. The self-creation of my own work is a statement. I think, though, that what we call today "artist-generated work" is a continuation of that spirit from the 90's. I'm far removed from it, I mean, I was three years old when the NEA Four happened, but I can see why they were suppressed...

    And about "piss Christ", yeah, I HATE that piece. Haha! But the story you shared about helps me process it a bit more, I guess.

  2. I keep getting Lee Blessing confused with A.R. Gurney - and I hold them in an equal level of lukewarm-at-best esteem - so when I heard of the plot of "Chesapeake," my first reaction was "What, he wrote ANOTHER woman-as-dog play?"

  3. What can I say, great minds think alike . . .