It’s been said—who said it?—each of us in our time knows our time. But supposing a cognitive mistake slips a...
Cross Gender / Cross Genre
Mike Kelley, 1999
This paper was originally presented on September 26, 1999, in Graz, Austria, at the Steirischer Herbst festival as part of ‘Re-Make/Re-Model: Secret Histories of Art, Pop, Life, and the Avant-garde’—a series of panel discussions sponsored by the Berlin Group and the Steirischer Herbst focusing on the politics of queer aesthetics. I also mounted a video installation at the Palais Attems titled ‘Unisex Love Nest,’ which included a feature-length videotape compilation composed of selections of period cross-gender-related films and documentation, as well as contemporary interviews with some of the artists.
My intention here is to present some thoughts on the aesthetics of the period from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s in relation to images of gender confusion. This decade, which, for want of a better term, I call the ‘psychedelic’ period, is rife with such images. I will attempt to explain why I believe this is so, and to describe some of the avant-garde clusters and pop genealogies associated with this cross-gender phenomenon.
It’s best to begin by explaining where I come from and thus why this theme is important to me. Born in 1954, I came of age at the tail end of the 1960s, a period of immense social change and unrest in America. I was fourteen in 1968, conscious enough to feel a part of the general social turmoil, too young to be a real hippie, but just old enough to be eligible for the Vietnam draft. However, my worldview was very much a by-product of the countercultural movement. As a result, I had nothing in common with my older siblings. They were ‘postwar’; I was part of the TV generation. I was mediated . . . I was ‘Pop.’ I didn’t feel connected in any way to my family, to my country, or to reality for that matter: the world seemed to me a media facade, and all history a fiction—a pack of lies. I was experiencing, I think, what has come to be known as the postmodern condition, a form of alienation quite different from postwar existentialism because it lacks any historical sense—there is no notion of a truth that has been lost. It is characterized by the feeling that there is a general evenness of meaning. To borrow a phrase from Richard Hell, I was part of the ‘blank generation.’
I was, however, sufficiently caught up in the ‘60s ethos to involve myself in radical politics, at least as a spectator. In Detroit, Michigan, the city where I grew up, the local version was the White Panther Party —supposedly a white spin-off of the revolutionary Black Panther Party. In reality it had more in common with the Yippies, the mostly white, hedonist, anarchist group whose politics consisted primarily of ‘acting out’—making one’s life into a kind of radical street theater. The purpose of this exercise was to render oneself unfit to function in normal society, and thus to prevent oneself from participating in and prolonging it. As the logic went, if one consumed enough drugs, one simply could not work in the military-industrial complex. White Panther activity was centered in the college town of Ann Arbor, and my interest in it drew me to related avant-garde music, theater, film, and political events. This is what led me to become an artist, which is quite remarkable, since I come from a working-class background and had little or no exposure to the fine arts as a child.
When I first heard Psychedelic music it was as if I had discovered myself.
This psychedelic culture  completely altered my worldview. When I first heard psychedelic music, it was as if I had discovered myself. I had never cared much for music before I heard bands like the MC5, the Stooges, the Mothers of Invention, and Jimi Hendrix. Their fractured music made sense to me— it mirrored the nature of the world as I understood it, and that of my own psyche. Of course, as every educated person knows, this was all old hat in relation to modernism—the avant-gardes at the beginning of the century: cubism, futurism, dada, and surrealism. But I was encountering a phenomenon of mass culture, not high art. One of the most interesting things about the late ‘60s is that the historical avant-gardes were picked up and inserted into popular culture under the guise of radical youth culture. In one swoop, surrealism became teenybopper culture. This was possible because the artists working in this crossover period still considered themselves avant-garde, a notion still conceivable in those years. ‘Progressive’ psychedelic music emerged, formally, in concert with notions of progressive social change, a liaison that, while it quickly fell apart (as evidenced in the irony of the camp aesthetic), was still operable at that moment. There are several strains within this progressive aesthetic, almost all sharing a link to the notion of the feminine.
The popular appeal of ‘60s radical youth culture in America was very much a by-product of the anti-Vietnam War movement. For the first time, complacent white youths were delivered into political consciousness by the threat of military conscription. The model for social protest was the black civil rights movement; the pacifist tendencies of Martin Luther King worked well with an antiwar message. It was this coincidental encounter between two very different constituencies that provoked, I believe, white male youths’ profound empathic connection to “otherness” in general. But the greatest ‘other’ was woman. If America’s problems were the result of being militaristic and patriarchal, the antidote would be the embrace of the prototypically feminine. And contemporary radical culture was dominated by displays of femininity (pacifism, long hair, flowery clothes) presented as signs of resistance. But not only femininity, male homosexuality as well, for the two were conflated in the popular mind. If the female is other, then the homosexual is doubly other since he was supposed by straight culture to be ‘unnatural.’ In a sense, the Vietnam War itself promoted this posture, since one way to escape the draft was to play gay, a masquerade that may be one motivating factor for the coming decade of popular homosexual posturing that finds its apex in glam rock.
If America’s problem was that it was militaristic, patriarchal and male, then the antidote would be the embrace of the prototypically feminine.
Hippie and flower child cultures are the ‘natural’ versions of this dyad of the feminine and the homosexual, and camp is its unnatural cousin. Despite the fact that they are both generally ‘progressive’ and ‘leftist’ and share many surface similarities, they are aesthetically opposed. Jack Smith, godfather of the New York ‘60s avant-garde theater and film scene, exemplifies the difference. Smith was a major influence on diverse New York trends (he was important, amazingly enough, to both the minimalist and maximalist camps); Warhol’s narrative films and the theater of Robert Wilson would almost be inconceivable without him, as would the junk sensibility of the East Village aesthetic. Yet Smith achieved his greatest notoriety by making the first avant-garde transvestite film, Flaming Creatures (1962–63)—a kind of structuralist parody of Orientalist Hollywood films of the 1940s. Smith’s embrace of the phoniness of these films is central to the camp aesthetic—and its politics. The camp aesthetic itself is suspect, for you are never sure whether its joys are real or ironic. It is an arcane aesthetic. Like Smith, hippie culture also embraced non-Western cultures, mixing them together in a psychedelic stew. But the hippie aesthetic invested in a ‘truth’ located in the ‘other,’ who becomes our savior. While there is little room for irony in this essentialist position, it too is suspect, for the other in hippie culture is generally presented through exotic clichés—media-derived stereotypes of the Native American, the Indian mystic, and so on. The hippie aesthetic now seems kitsch, even if that was not the intention. Hippie has become camp by default.
The primary signifier of psychedelic culture, the pastiche aesthetic, promotes confusion while at the same time postulating equality—all its chaotic parts are considered equal. This effect can be understood as either very democratic or profoundly nihilistic. We could describe the difference as set between a ‘utopian’ and a ‘black’ version of camp. The Cockettes—and the films of Steven Arnold—illustrate this difference. The Cockettes were a San Francisco-based troupe that produced a kind of campy and parodistic transvestite theater that, unlike traditional transvestite shows, reveled in the exhibition of the incomplete pose. Though they wore extravagant costumes that mimicked 1930s Hollywood notions of glamour, their feminine masquerade was deliberately provisional and half-accomplished. The ‘queens’ often had beards—a definite no-no in transvestite acts where ‘passing‘ as a woman is the sign of quality. The Cockettes included women, yet these did not usually cross-dress as men. The aesthetic of the group was organized around a redefinition of glamour—an ‘alien’ glamour, if you will, but one still rooted in a feminine pose. Such was the group’s debt to hippie culture: they represent a true crossover between hippie communalism and a later, more overtly defined, ‘queer’ aesthetic.
In the films of John Waters, by contrast, while no vestige of hippie remains, there is a similar play with gender slippage in the figure of the grotesque ‘drag queen’ Divine, who could never be mistaken for a woman. Waters celebrates ‘queerness’ for its abject nature relative to dominant American society. One need not search for an outside aesthetic in his films, because ‘you,’ the supposedly empathic film viewer, already represent the other. The negative connotations of being ‘artistic’—that is, pathological—are presented in Waters’s films in a completely unsublimated manner. The freakish characters in his films were not designed just to be laughed at; they are, in a sense, role models. His are low comedies with no ascendant intentions and no redeeming social value—they are post avant-garde and proto-punk.
The Mothers of Invention have an abject aesthetic similar in some ways to Waters’s, but more traditionally avant-garde. The Mothers were a rock band formed in the mid-1960s by white R&B musician Frank Zappa, who combined dissonance with his R&B roots under the influence of new music composer Edgard Varèse. The Mothers’ music exemplifies the psychedelic aesthetic in its use of pastiche structures, combining elements of pop, rock, free jazz, new music, electronic music, and comedy. The effect is akin to a live reenactment of a tape collage work by John Cage. The band was also overtly theatrical, adopting transgressive stage techniques (such as audience baiting and performative discontinuity) derived from such modernist, post-Brechtian forms as the Happening. Their visual aesthetic was neodada: abject, ‘junk,’ and ugly. The Mothers were part of a larger community of musicians and artists in the Los Angeles area, centered primarily around Zappa, called the Freak Scene, which openly positioned itself against the hippie aesthetic of the natural. This scene included the avant-garde rock groups Captain Beefheart, Alice Cooper, and the GTOs, the latter an all-female band composed of groupies. All of these acts employed drag elements from time to time.
As with the Cockettes, the Mothers’ version of drag was incomplete. But there are differences, for, despite their ridiculous image, the Cockettes had a playful, positive quality absent from the Mothers—whose use of drag has more in common with the traditional comedic adoption of female garb by the male, an is in that sense an abject usage. In Western culture, men who dress in female clothes are considered funny, while the opposite is generally not the case: a woman dressed in male clothes has little comedic value. The sexism underlying this difference is obvious, for why else should the adoption of feminine characteristics by a man be abject? This is not to deny that the Mothers were a politically conscious band—in fact, they were one of the most politically aware musical groups of the period. In a sense, though, they were a realist band ridiculing the romantic utopianism and exoticism of hippie psychedelia. Their satiric ugliness was meant to be a distorted mirroring of the values of dominant culture.
The Alice Cooper band is somewhat similar, but more pop: their aesthetic is more flat and their intentions are less clear. Like Zappa’s, early Alice Cooper records mix rock and roll with noise elements influenced by avant-garde music. Both share that anti-hippie reveling in the aesthetics of the ugly, though for Alice Cooper it’s a blend of transvestism and cheap horror-film theatrics. Their ‘decadent’ mixture of horrific and homosexual signification was designed for a much more general audience than Zappa’s. Like Waters, they were unapologetic in their embrace of the low. It could be said that they were the first truly popular camp band—with two separate audiences. Alice Cooper was a very commercially successful pop band, putting out a string of top ten hits including ironic saccharine ballads that some of their audience read as parodies, while others embraced them as genuinely emotional. Similarly, one part of their audience empathized with their freakish, decadent personas, while another simply perceived such roles as comedic. By virtue of their use of camp strategies, Alice Cooper could be said to have ‘outed’ the spectacular aspects of pop music.
Pop music in America has long embraced the ‘glamorous,’ a.k.a. the homosexual, in closeted terms. Liberace’s campy stage act was never discussed openly in relation to his homosexuality. The performer himself foreclosed such considerations, once winning a lawsuit against a British gossip columnist who merely intimated that he was a homosexual. Somewhat ironically, considering the purported ‘sexual’ nature of the musical form, such sublimation pervades the history of rock and roll. Elvis’s appearance was repellent at first to his primarily country music audience because of his use of makeup; but as he became more and more of a popular figure, this aspect of his stage act became invisible—naturalized. The so-called British invasion bands of the mid-1960s, like the Rolling Stones, picked up on this ‘glamorous’ posturing, filtering it through English visual tropes of foppish ‘decadence.’ Mick Jagger’s stage movements were at once ‘black’ and ‘gay,’ which made him twice evil—and doubly sexualized—in the eyes of his teenybopper fans. Such posing signals a major change in the pop arena, for its open flirtation with ‘evil’ is something that Elvis, with his desire to be a mainstream pop star, could never have entertained. It was only within the framework of the ‘60s counterculture that such a ‘transgressive’ aesthetic could find acceptance as ‘popular’ music.
From Jagger on, a whole string of figures raise the stakes in decadence and danger. The two most important are probably Jim Morrison of the Doors and Iggy Pop of the Stooges. Morrison is rumored to have lifted his leather boy look from the rough trade posturings of the Warhol scene, and his confrontational stage act from the methods of the Living Theatre. Iggy Pop’s vile and self-destructive stage persona became the model for the later punk rock performers of the ‘70s. In American culture at least, much of the aesthetics of ‘homosexual evil’ can be traced back to the work of filmmaker Kenneth Anger, whose book Hollywood Babylon, focusing on the dark and degraded subhistory of Hollywood glamour, is the bible of camp. Anger’s films detailing various American subcultures seen through a homosexual gaze set the standard for much pop art following in the Warholian tradition. It is through Kenneth Anger that the leather-clad 1950s juvenile delinquent, with his emotion-laden pop songs, finds his way into the camp pantheon, enters the Velvet Underground, and finally comes to rest in the leather uniform of punk. His influence also helped convert the macho posturings of the biker thug into a sign of the alienated and sensitive artist—witness Patti Smith’s image mix of leather boy and romantic poet. Likewise, it is through Anger, whose interest in popular subcultural ritual led him to ritual magic, that Satanism—as another sign of decadence—enters the pop music world (primarily through the Rolling Stones in their psychedelic period, when they adopted Anger’s look lock, stock, and barrel).
What becomes of this ‘outing’ of the abject nature of the feminine, consensually precipitated in music and avant-garde cultures? As ‘transvestite’ counterculture leaves the utopianism of the 1960s behind and enters the economically harsher social climate of the 1970s, two major trends emerge: feminism and punk. In the context of all this female posturing, it only makes sense that female artists would finally demand to play a role. Even though there were female members of such ‘transvestite-oriented’ groups as the Cockettes—and the various versions of the Ridiculous Theater in New York—the outward signs of most of the costuming were female-coded. Some of the female artists involved with these theater companies describe their experiences as a kind of self-exploration in relation to conventions of glamour. As participants in the antipatriarchal tenor of the period, they were not particularly interested in experimenting with the adoption of male gender stereotypes. With her overtly S&M persona as the whip dancer with the Velvet Underground, her ‘butch’ roles in Warhol’s films, and her masculine portrayals in John Vaccaro’s plays, Mary Woronov is the exception here. More commonly, the female participants were primarily concerned with their own relationship to female stereotypes. The GTOs, for example, invented a look that was a trash version of the female Hollywood stars of the 1920s and 1930s. Like the Warhol ‘star system,’ this was meant as a retooling, or redefinition, of that beauty, yet was still tied to it through the inversions of camp. Several female artists in the early 1970s began to experiment with shifting roles and identities in relation to issues of glamour and gender. Eleanor Antin, for example, made a work titled Representational Painting (1971), for which she sat in front of a mirror applying makeup, removing it, and applying it again in a constant state of ‘pictorial’ self-definition. She later adopted a series of overtly theatrical personas, including a king, a nurse, and a ballerina. This kind of play reached its zenith in Judy Chicago’s feminist workshop programs in the Los Angeles area in the early 1970s. Here, female artists collectively explored their relationship to various female stereotypes in a much more critical and politically conscious environment than had previously been possible. Their performances used such stereotypes as the cheerleader, bride, waitress, beauty queen, and drag queen as a way of exploring and destabilizing female stereotypes.
The rise of glam rock was concurrent with this movement. In America at least, Alice Cooper is a key transitional figure, in that he leaves psychedelia behind and fully embraces the frameworks of pop—trying, that is, to balance irony and popular appeal. Glam rock was a music that fully understood the commercial music world and accepted it as an arena of facade and emptiness, using the image of the drag queen as a sign of this status. David Bowie is crucial here. He adopts personas, throws them away at whim, and constantly reinvents himself for the market. He mirrors our culture of planned obsolescence. For consumer culture, it has been suggested, the constantly changing, chameleon persona represents empowerment. Certain feminist critics have read Madonna’s activities in this way, though I have serious misgivings about this interpretation of her practice—or of Bowie’s. Madonna becomes the sign of a spectacular female producer, in contrast to the traditional image of the passive female consumer. I might add that this is how the GTOs thought of themselves: as consumers—groupies—who became producers—rock stars themselves. The spectacular is engaged head-on through pure emulation.
Punk was the immediate response to this fixation with spectacular consumer culture; it replaced the spectacular with the pathetic. Punk was the last gasp of avant-gardism in pop, played out with the most extreme signs of decadent nihilism. As a symbol of this end state, the gender significations of the previous avant-garde were reversed: maleness became the general referent. The punk uniform is the macho rough trade look of Kenneth Anger’s camp leather boy—for men and women alike. Androgyny remains a factor here, but whether the punk ‘unisex’ image was a vestige of some connection to the utopian, feminine androgyny of the psychedelic period, or is simply consistent with the capitalist cult of youth culture, is open to argument. But that’s another story.
Mike Kelley, 1999
Twenty years after its creation, Mike Kelley’s ‘Unisex Love Nest’ will be presented in the late artist’s hometown for the very first time when it fills Hauser & Wirth’s stand at the inaugural Frieze Los Angeles.
Mike Kelley’s ‘Cross Gender / Cross Genre’ (1999, 120 min) includes interviews by Mike Kelley, Diedrich Diedrichsen, and Juliane Rebentisch, and is edited by Catherine Sullivan and Greg Kucera, with graphics by Salvatore Reda and Michelle Alperin. Special thanks to Eleanor Antin, Jackie Apple, Pamela Des Barres, A.A. Bronson, Rodney Bingenheimer, Stephanie Farrago, Cameron Jamie, Gerard Malanga, Roger Niren, Sebastian, Jim Shaw, Mink, Stole, Mary Woronov, and Holly Woodlawn.
Courtesy Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts © Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts. All Rights Reserved/VAGA at ARS, NY.
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