December 2, 2016

My Gaga Dream

I had a dream last night about Lady Gaga. As some of you may know, she studied art before she became a pop singer. So in my dream I was at an opening of some of her artwork – which is hard to describe, but it was composed mainly of text, with some imagery that was smallish and secondarily placed. The text was apparently embossed, white raised lettering on a white background. The gist of the words’ meanings has faded over the daylight hours but I do recall there were footnotes and the further exposition of the “meanings” there in the footnotes is also lost on me – but I was left with a profound sense that it was my responsibility to explain these works of art to my students.

I am not teaching currently so I don’t have any students. However, I often dream of teaching, prepping for class lectures and carrying out longish conversations – which remain steadfastly logical and pedagogic, even in the unconscious realm of my dreams! 

Several things struck me about this dream, as my consciousness came into focus throughout the morning, and I began to reflect about the uniqueness of the transference of knowledge in the act of teaching. I recalled something my old professor, Richard Klank, had said about understanding, that essentially it describes the state of “standing under” whatever the term or concept we’re discussing, as if under an umbrella. The physicality of that image and the way it conveys how knowing something feels has remained with me all these years.

This kind of dissection of words can be fruitful and I do it often. So I worked on this dream a bit more, considered that feeling of responsibility I had while walking through Gaga’s dream, that I would need to be able to talk about Gaga’s work with my students, to explain it. This easily granted me insight into the nature of responsibility, that I had that “response-ability” and that my pedagogic duty was to transfer my understanding of Gaga’s art through my responses to her work.

At a Thanksgiving dinner with friends last week I listened as a fellow educator, now retired, spoke of his own “life-long learning” as a science teacher. It is well known among us teachers that one is constantly researching our subject areas to stay abreast of developments in our various disciplines. For me in the fine art area, particularly with relevance to theory, this meant subscribing to art periodicals, perusing the Internet’s art sites and blogs to read reviews, essays and critiques. Additionally, I toured DC’s museums and art galleries, usually got up to New York City each season and foraged through whatever world-class cities' venues I found myself in, from Denver to Hong Kong.

We became learners to be better teachers. My syllabi evolved over the years, expanding into new eras and covering new artists for class lectures. I also was able to create another Corcoran College class based on my research on postconceptual tendencies in contemporary art.

All of this takes time, of course, and the educator who hits that 10-year, 15-year, or even 20-year mark does benefit from the specialized knowledge gained. But what do we do with it besides lecture?

There’s publishing, obviously, if you have the stamina for it. But with the wealth of free material awash over the Ethernet, one shouldn’t hold out for a career in the academic textbook niche.

Be that as it may, I want to return to that dream. Lady Gaga is a pop phenomena, and she seems like a respectful person, as she impressed Tony Bennett – probably not easy – and performed and recorded with him. We know that she studied art, and I’ve lectured on her savvy appropriation of Tania Bruguera’s lamb-meat dress (1) and her obvious emulation of Madonna’s persona shifts – possibly inspired by David Bowie’s brilliance in pop star “shape-shifting.” But she doesn’t make art...yet.

And those “white-on-white” words and sentences, even without knowing their context or intent, bear some close reading. If we can see that it’s almost invisible, would that help? Is it “Art” with a Capital A if it’s hard to see, hard to make out, and even harder to respond to?

It is precisely because my 13-year tenure as an art theory professor, coupled with those concomitant “response-abilities” to my students, had recently ended, that I find myself reflecting on my continuance of research and critical discourse as “Art.” And this moment is when the dream has emerged in my unconscious. Did my unspoken yet anticipated critique of Gaga’s word-works represent my indecision vis-à-vis my own art practice?

Any thoughts?

IMAGE: Lady Gaga in her meat dress at the 2010 VMA Awards; taken from YouTube without permission.

1. Czech-Canadian artist Jana Sterbak created yet another meat dress ("Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic") in 1987; go here for more. 

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