Sometime in the mid-’90s, I had a phone conversation with my older brother David (who prefers the moniker “DaveR”), in which I shared my growing appreciation of New Music—avant-garde work influenced by John Cage, jazz, rock, Indian classical, and other musics from around the world. DaveR pushed back hard, going after the minimalist, conceptualist end of New Music. A classically trained pianist, he resented what he considered a cop-out on the discipline required to be a “real” musician.
It’s never been easy for me to take on DaveR. Even when I’m sure of my position, the intellectual guns he brings out are cannons. I regress to a state of mad kid-hood, stabbing here, stumbling there, wearing myself down to, at best, a draw. In this case, I didn’t even try to argue. I just didn’t have the language to defend this music I was excited about. And I felt a bit shaken. After all, we had grown up in the same family of classical music lovers. My father always had the local classical station playing—a vital form of self-medication for this driven, angry man. We all studied piano as children; DaveR really took to the instrument. One morning I awoke into the heart of a Bach piece he was working on, flooded with bliss.
Although my parents were passionate about classical music and the parallel versions of other art forms, they weren’t stuck there. I absorbed the message that art was worthwhile, period. Prior to grad school, the arts education I gave myself was a crazy quilt of influences and experiences. Yet while my quilt included canonized art and still does, I was slouching toward the avant-garde. When I entered an MFA program in the mid-’90s, I dove into “experimental” literature, encountering brilliant innovators from Dickinson, Whitman, and Mallarmé forward. I was just as excited by the work of my peers. And we were all ingesting innovations in other art forms. You’d think by the time of the phone call with my brother, I’d have been able to make a case for New Music. But beyond the usual problem of sparring with someone better fit than I for the debate team, I saw DaveR’s point. And the part of me steeped in the classical tradition agreed with him.
I changed the subject.
In the mid-’90s, I broke up with someone I’d been with for years. I’d been a nonconformist my entire life, and when my card-carrying radical partner had an affair and told me he’d assumed I was open to such things, I was ripped to shreds. Such an arrangement works well for some, but apparently I’m designed for dyads. I bought lingerie and lipstick and decided that the next time around, I’d get married. I felt like I was bursting bonds. It wasn’t rational—how can you call it a liberating move to embrace traditional behaviors and institutions you’ve spent a life resisting? And it’s hardly as if marriage protects against infidelity. But in that moment, I saw that my former refusal to present myself as a sex object had been built on a platform of fear–of men, of sex, of desire. This brittle platform had kept me from seeing myself and others clearly. DaveR agreed. Next time around, he advised, don’t dismiss guys who aren’t perfect on paper. Some of them may treat you better than X did, for all his stellar Leftie credentials.
Lingerie and lipstick and marriage intrigued me precisely because they had seemed verboten. I was still a fierce feminist, but I was seeking a new subjectivity, one that involved more love, more risk, and fewer rules.
Sometime in the mid-’90s, I acquired a book on artist Marcel Duchamp. When I got to Étant donnés, a diorama witnessed through peepholes, I stopped cold. I was angered by the figure of a curvy, headless, spread-eagled nude who evoked a victim in a slasher movie. I also learned that Duchamp had used 1,000 foam-rubber breasts for the catalogue covers of an art exhibition. Even given his gender-bending adoption of alter ego Rrose Sélavy, he was tainted for me by these works that reinforced the history of women’s subjugation. I shut the book.
A decade after my decision that the next time I fell in love I would marry, I married. Once you sign up for that, you face a whole series of symbolic objects and actions. For instance, I knew from the outset that I’d resist the white dress. I had in mind a certain cut—fitted empire waist, flowing long lines—and traipsed around trying on myriad options in every color. None of them worked. I drew a sketch for a coworker; within seconds she had me on the J. Crew website looking at my dress. It was perfect—except it was white. It arrived in a thin box, fell onto me like a friend, hugged tight. I wanted to alter it, pictured purple ribbons of many hues, widths, and textures streaming from the waist. But none of my friends bought in. They questioned why I’d ruin a perfectly good dress. Get a purple shawl, they advised. Get some big dangly earrings if you want. I did. Not much of a rebellion.
It all went like that. I had assiduously arranged things so I’d get a good night’s sleep before the wedding, but was too jittery to rest. I arrived at the wedding site late, with dark circles under my eyes. Hustling to the dressing room I found the friend who’d signed on to do my makeup, and who made clear her irritation at the fact that she now had to execute quickly. I had decided to have no one “give me away,” but late in the game my dad had told me he planned to do so–my dad whose inappropriate sexual energy and verbal and physical abuse had been largely responsible for my adoption of a rigid definition of feminism. I recognized his eleventh-hour wish to inhabit the role of loving father and relented. We inched down the aisle to accommodate his increasing fragility while DaveR played Minuet No. 1 of Bach’s French Suite No.1 in D Minor, BWV 812—the same piece I awoke to hearing him play when I was a child.
My partner waited under a chuppah because he was raised Jewish and because what’s not to love about a chuppah—a little roof, open on the sides so everyone you love can surround and bless you. I circled him—the wrong number of times because I lost track. The ceremonial goblet we drank from was cracked; wine spilled blood-red down the center of my dress, so I got the avant look I’d wanted after all but was upset about it. But had to put on a happy face. I’d suggested potluck; my beloved informed me that his people didn’t do potluck. So we served homemade tuna salad and potato salad and three-bean salad on paper plates. But they were really weddingy paper plates.
A wedding’s a wedding and it wears its history like a long white train. There’s only so much I was going to disappoint a bunch of elders schlepping suitcases full of expectations across the country to attend our event. Still, we managed to mess with convention and implicate even our most mainstream guests in ways they hadn’t expected, signing them up to help us make the aforementioned salads, move tables and chairs, and perform in or watch what amounted to a talent show, including a long rap in German by my German nephew, who apparently never got the memo that the performances were supposed to honor our betrothal. Every 50 words or so, he banged his fist against his chest and shouted scheisse at the top of his lungs. Shit. The guests sat bemused, probably wondering when their patience would earn them some coffee and cake.
Twenty-some years after I dismissed Duchamp for art I found infuriating, I started studying the work of choreographer and filmmaker Yvonne Rainer. When I found out about Duchamp’s impact on Rainer and her peers (mediated in part by Cage, who counted Duchamp and Zen as his biggest influences, and who in turn significantly influenced Rainer’s crowd), I took a fresh look at his aesthetic. I still don’t know what to do with the slasher diorama or the 1,000 breasts, but I’m putting those pieces on the shelf for now. Viewing him through the work of later generations, I’m focusing on the fundamental shift he helped bring about in the way art is understood. Through his “readymades,” most infamously the urinal he titled “Fountain,” Duchamp rejected what he called “retinal” art, or art designed for passive viewing. Instead, he wanted to instigate active thought in the viewer. I can now appreciate how he paved the way for works by Rainer and others that got viewers to think about their own perceptions and projections. In Being Watched: Yvonne Rainer and the 1960s, Carrie Lambert-Beatty describes how these younger artists, inspired in part by Duchamp’s iconoclastic stance, helped cause a shift:
“. . . from a mindset that seeks art’s essence in inherent aspects of the work, to one that finds art’s definition contingent upon the structuring conditions of its appearance. How an object or event is seen—under what institutional conditions? Subject to what assumptions on the part of the viewers? And by viewers physically and socially positioned how?”
In other words, these artists’ work challenged an idea of art that had long held sway. In this schema, the lone artist creates the masterpiece and presents it in a pristine setting where the humble audience comes to receive inspiration. Duchamp and those who followed in his footsteps foregrounded the fact that art is never separate from the world; it is always made and shared in contexts that affect how we experience and interpret it. Such contexts include the setting in which a piece is seen (the “institutional conditions” Lambert-Beatty speaks of—museum or mall, art gallery or corporate lobby). They include the specifics of how viewers are permitted to engage with an artwork—must they stand behind a velvet rope, or may they clamber all over the piece? And the contexts include audience members’ myriad assumptions and biases, based on such factors as race, class, gender, age, form of embodiment, education, location, and language.
Rainer’s role in helping bring about this shift is easily evident in her work. Take the Vietnam-era piece Trio A With Flags. She and colleagues performed it nude with large American flags tied around their necks (Being Watched). The flags both masked and revealed their nudity, potentially triggering an array of emotionally charged responses and the accompanying opportunity for self-reflection on the audience’s part. The “institutional conditions” invoked include the flag as a symbol of democracy and freedom, the government’s slaughter of innocent bodies and its simultaneous crackdown on freedom of expression in the name of this symbol, and the protest of these repressive acts. Beyond that, the piece confronted observers with assumptions about the naked human body in art. If we accept as art’s pinnacle the hundreds of years’ worth of women’s naked bodies painted by men and displayed in museums with multi-million-dollar price tags, what grounds could anyone conjure to name as inappropriate and repulsive the flashing of body parts from behind draped flags as the performers dance? Does the exposure of the naked human body bear special relevance in the context of the Vietnam War, when so many came home in bags? What are we free to express, under what circumstances, and to whom? How is this expression received and processed, by whom?
Such questions, generated to no small extent by Duchamp and extended by Rainer and her peers, are a gift that keeps on giving. Today, there is still nothing more urgent than addressing the positioning and treatment of our bodies within various institutional conditions. People of conscience continue to foreground fundamental questions about repression and freedom of these bodies, minds, hearts, and mouths of ours.
I got married on May 26, 2006. I’d heard Madeleine Peyroux’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love” and had a vision of my beloved and me improvising a flamboyantly expressive dance to it. The beloved felt that this would be disastrous, given our amateur dance skills. So we hired a dance teacher to help us choreograph the piece. It was a struggle for me to inhabit the follower role, but we worked it out. On the wedding day we delivered perfectly, gesture after gesture to the dramatic last pose. At this grand moment, when I’d envisioned all eyes trained unblinkingly on our performance, the energy of the reception had dissipated. Given all the other performances the guests had sat through by then, including the Shit Rap, they began to drift to the back of the auditorium to chat and drink coffee. Only 20 or so people watched us. For years after, I spent many a 3am soliloquy reliving the frustration that the experience had not gone as envisioned.
A decade after I got married, I started studying the choreography of Yvonne Rainer and her peers. The writing I’ve done in response marries this research to my own experiences of performance and dance. Given that my wedding was the most ambitious performance I’ve ever orchestrated, it feels right to revisit that event through the work of these postmodernists. Yet it’s an awkward comparison. For all that Rainer and her colleagues helped broaden our understanding of what art can be, they still worked at a remove from the everyday world—they felt at liberty to develop and execute their artistic visions however they saw fit and as provocatively as they dared. I had to make—or felt I had to make—all kinds of compromises in the creation of the wedding in order to arrive at something everyone could find a way to relate to, from avant-garde poet friends to loving elders with their treasured beliefs and expectations.
But the Duchampian ideas that Rainer and her crowd extended also give me a recuperative way to view our wedding, and in the process to tease out universals embedded in the event beyond something borrowed, something blue.
When I muse on the way Rainer and others helped create a shift “from a mindset that seeks art’s essence in inherent aspects of the work, to one that finds art’s definition contingent upon the structuring conditions of its appearance” (Being Watched), I realize how limited my post-wedding analyses have been. I’ve congratulated us over and over on the parts that went well and wrung my hands about what went poorly. But with the help of these avant-garde artists, I can focus on the structural conditions surrounding this event, and as a result am no longer inclined to assign grades. Rather, I now focus on the ways the event was embedded in a set of conditions and assumptions determined by a vast array of institutional, cultural, political, and economic constraints. It could not have been any other way than exactly as it was, a flawed work of art in which every guest was a participant. DaveR and Bach collaborate to open the floodgates to feeling. Soggy Kleenex absorbs tears of red-nosed listeners as my partner and I read aloud our vows—vows my father will later tell me he reread at home, weeping his heart out, that heart so long buried under a narcissistic rage that had constantly threatened to destroy everyone in our family and to some extent succeeded, that heart that never stopped secretly pulsing with paternal love. Scarlet wine spills down my white dress, comically making the point that I’m no pristine virgin, while evoking the passion and pain that are part of any long-term romantic commitment. My nephew shouts Shit! Shit! Shit!—unrelentingly forcing us to acknowledge yet another bodily excrement that reminds us of the animals we are even when dressed to the nines, and making the event a performance Karen Finley might admire. Well-off conventional elders and poor avant-garde poets alike leave their seats to stretch stiff limbs and find cake at exactly the moment their bodies need it, leaving a devoted few to be inspired and maybe forever just slightly altered by our perfectly executed dance to the end of love.
Sarah Rosenthal is the author of Estelle Meaning Star (Chax, forthcoming), The Grass Is Greener when the Sun Is Yellow (The Operating System, 2019; collaboration with Valerie Witte), Lizard (Chax, 2016), Manhatten (Spuyten Duyvil, 2009), and several chapbooks. She edited A Community Writing Itself: Conversations with Vanguard Writers of the Bay Area (Dalkey Archive, 2010). Her poetry, fiction, and nonfiction writing has appeared in numerous journals and is anthologized in Kindergarde: Avant-garde Poems, Plays, and Stories for Children (Black Radish, 2013), Building is a Process / Light is an Element: essays and excursions for Myung Mi Kim (P-Queue, 2008), and Bay Poetics. Her short film, We Agree on the Sun, which uses poetry and movement to explore the intersection of postmodern dance, somatic knowledge, and houselessness, has received numerous accolades on the festival circuit. She lives in San Francisco where she works as a Life & Professional Coach, develops curricula for the Center for the Collaborative Classroom, and serves on the California Book Awards jury. More at sarahrosenthal.net.