Monday, May 14, 2007

Joe The Lion

The first track on David Bowie's 1977 Heroes (the second in his so-called Berlin triptych) is named "Joe the Lion." Its opening verse--hell, all of its lyrics--are a bit obscure:
Joe the Lion
went to the bar
A couple of drinks on the house and he said
'tell you who you are
if you nail me to my car.'

"Joe the Lion" refers to (among other things, I suspect) an actual person, a performance artist named Chris Burden. Peter Schjeldahl (or, as Dave Hickey calls him, "the redoubtable Schjeldahl") has a great piece on Burden in the new New Yorker. It includes a picture of the artwork described in the lyrics above, a piece in which Burden had himself nailed by the hands to a VW bug.

In other of his art works, Burden was shot in the arm (at close range); lay under a tilted frame of glass without food or water for 45 hours; crawled, nearly naked, across fifty feet of broken glass, and was kicked down a flight of stairs. Whether or not you believe these acts constitute art, it's hard not to admire Burden's commitment (or to wonder, as I'm sure he wants us to, at what point commitment shades into derangement. A favorite subject of Werner Herzog.)

The article contains two pretty nifty definitions of art. The first is Burden's: "[art is] a free spot in society, where you can do anything." The second is from Schjeldahl: "art is a privileged zone of gratuitous activity, with boundaries maintained by the agreement of the vested authorities."


Cold said...

I like the first definition better. Schjeldahl's definition makes sense, but to me, only if it is read as sarcasm. At face value, it seems to leave out the fact that that definition is highly mutable and so changes with each new work made. That's right. Every work I make changes the definition of art. This post, right here...

Cold said...

chapter I. confucius said of the head of the Chi Family, who had eight rows of pantomimes in his area, 'If he can bear to do this, what may he not bear to do?'

and this goes for both burden as well as the guy who did the nailing up!

Cartooniste said...

the longer i spend thinking about art, the more i struggle to develop a definition that frees it from being a commodity.
you would think that this problem would make me especially interested in or sympathetic to performance art, of which only the remnants can be commodified and not the thing itself. but instead i just get bored by it. "I dare you to ignore me!" i screams. "I HAVE NAILED MYSELF TO A FREAKING VOLKSWAGEN."
Why is that heroic and creative, and not stupid?

Tim said...

Cartooniste, I know what you mean. I was going to write more about Burden. I want to think about the impact of his art; does it do anything more than challenge the boundaries of what art is? Is that project, alone, all that interesting? Shouldn't the art experience give the audience some sort of pleasure--whether it be sensual, intellectual, or (ideally) a mixture of the two? (Yes! It should!) If so, does Burden's? I'm not sure.

I didn't go into all of this in my post on Burden because, frankly, there wasn't room. But it's coming. Hide the women and children....

I think at least some of the appeal of an artist like Burden has to do with his dedication. Anyone who will be shot in the arm or nailed to a car in the service of "art" seems, on the face of it, to deserve our respect. Such commitment! And I think that's valid, to a point. (It reminds me of Kafka's "Hunger Artist", actually.) The question is, do we respect him for his art, or merely for his commitment TO the art? Because I think the two are distinct.

Cold said...

exactly. but if WE don't like the art itself. then is he not just a sort of weirder (or perhaps you could say less "affiliated") version of the typical suicide bomber. you might argue, no, because they are brainwashed and he controls his own MO. but i might counter with, yes, but he is brainwashed by the perverted contemporary conceptual art scene into thinking his suffering matters.