by Michael Fallon   August 21, 2004

Michael Fallon reports back from the performance front, where art's engagement with the larger society looms larger.
Michael Fallon
Michael Fallon
Michael Fallon

"We lack precise knowledge about time, place, and method of attack, but along with the CIA, FBI and other agencies, we are actively working to gain that knowledge… [The planned attack is] an effort to disrupt the democratic process before November's elections."
--Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, two days after the end of a rival party's political convention, on a supposed large-scale terror attack plotted for the near future; the reports, based on three-year-old information, claim the attacks are being directed by Osama bin Laden and other top al Qaeda members.

OKAY, OKAY, I'M AS DEAD TIRED OF DOOM AND GLOOM and potential terrorist boom as you are by now. So to take my mind off the Code Orange alerts, the quagmire economy (for artists and others), and the distant quagmire war, I recently escaped into some art—and some very edgy art too.

To start with, I watched a newly released DVD of the 1932 cult film “Freaks,” by Tod Browning, who also directed the classic Bela Legosi 1931 version of “Dracula." "Freaks" was banned for about thirty years after its release in the U.K. and parts of the U.S. (and is still banned in Sweden), and then it was shelved by MGM until Marilyn Manson, of all people, and Anton LeVay petitioned recently for its re-release. I can almost understand why the film offends people. It casts real circus sideshow performers of the time—legless and armless men and women, microcephalics (i.e., pinheads), midgets, Siamese twins, a hermaphrodite, a bearded lady, and so on.
The story concerns the efforts of Cleopatra, a haughty trapeze artist, to trick a dignified midget into falling in love with her. At the culmination of her ruse, the performers hold a bizarre dinner celebration that culminates with the chant: “Gooble-gobble … we accept her, one of us.” This horrifies Cleopatra and provokes a less-than-p.c. outburst: “Freaks!" The freaks’ revenge, exacted in the mud during a heavy rainstorm, is terrifying and has the end effect, oddly, of turning the trapeze artist into a strange squawking sideshow chicken-woman--thus raising the question, who is more normal, the freaks or the normals who prey on the freaks?

As if that’s not enough, I also attended a number of shows at last week’s Minnesota Fringe Festival. I wasn't going to go—after all, how much freakiness can one person bear in a week?--but a sudden free press pass fell in my lap the day the festival opened. And after all, free is free--so, off I went a-fringing.

And let me tell you, I witnessed some pretty astonishing stuff. For instance, at one performance I saw Pioneer Press drama critic Dominic Papatola in the audience. The performance was Kevin Kling's "Whoppers," and, amazingly, the critic even laughed once or twice along with the rest of us. I also saw an entire show based on the local alternative newsweekly City Pages (ah, such bittersweet memories). And finally, I experienced the excruciating improvisational antics of the Scrimshaw brothers, which involved much physical pain, pratfalls, beer swilling and spilling, and nipple pinching.

After seven such Fringe shows I came to the conclusion that "fringe," like “freak,” is a good word for this massive infusion of grass-roots theater arts and for arts in general. More and more, artists exist as outsiders from the norm in this country--both the economic norm (due to the lack of value the nation currently places on art) and the social norm. As a sign that more and more artists are considered marginal, or even dangerous, consider the recent case of Buffalo artist and university professor Steven Kurtz, who had all of his work confiscated by the Feds—under the U.S. Patriot act—for suspicion of bioterrorism.

Granted, Kurtz is a bit edgy—he’s what’s known as a “bio-artist,” meaning his work grapples with current questions concerning biology and science and our society’s current relationship to it. And while such edginess might well intimidate the un-art-initiated, a grand jury immediately found Kurtz innocent of the original bioterrorism charge. Still, tellingly, the Feds, perhaps unhappy with Kurtz’s vocal opposition to Bush Administration policies regarding bioweapons, have continued to harass Kurtz and his colleagues in the Critical Art Ensemble, a group devoted to exploring politically progressive art and technology (website: http://www.caedefensefund.org/). At present, prosecutors are sticking Kurtz with the trumped up charge of mail fraud (for a small act not even connected with the original investigation), a charge the government often levies as a consolation when it can’t get defendants on bigger charges. (For more information on this case, see this story: http://www.alternet.org/columnists/story/19368/)

Why, you’re probably wondering, would the government bother to harass artists, as politically negligible and terroristically harmless a group as any, this way? Well, an answer to that question might lie in between the lines of a little gubernatorial hissy-fit that I read about the other day:

"I really appreciate his music, but I wish he wouldn't interject his music with politics."
--Governor Tim Pawlenty, reportedly "heartbroken" that Bruce Springsteen plans to rock against President Bush.

First off, am I the only person who finds this absurd? What the governor says makes no sense. Springsteen is one of our most politically conscientious artists. His songs have always been about the pressures the little guy faces, about the inherent unfairness of the system, about getting your first union card at age 19, about not having much work on account of the economy, about waiting for better days—the progressive’s essential political mantra. I suppose it's entirely possible that Springsteen's message has gone over Governor Tim's head all these years--after all, Springsteen is rather literary, almost Shakespearian, in his attempts record and address human suffering. Springsteen is, after all, the only rocker I know who wrote a song based on a character from Steinbeck's great socialist novel "Grapes of Wrath," a book I somehow doubt the governor’s ever read.

But then again, there's also the chance that the governor is being purposely disingenuous here. He is, after all, rather politically astute. Maybe Pawlenty’s censorious chiding of Springsteen was scripted for political gain of the reactionary sort.

Kevin Kling suggested such things happen in several of the short stories he told as part of "Whoppers." In one story, Kling recounts that once, as a younger man in the later 1980s, he traveled with a group of fellow American theater artists to Czechoslovakia to perform and share with performers in that country. At one point, his Czech cohorts took him, trembling with fear, to the woods to see a surreptitious performance by members of the Jazz Club, a group that had been banned by the communist government. "If they had been caught," says Kling, "they could have been jailed. They were risking everything." Yet the artists, he said, were willing to risk everything for the sake of an envisioned free future.
Kling goes on to say that later he discovered that his play, “21A,” about riding the bus and interacting with cross sections of our local metropolis, had been banned from performance in Czechoslovakia not by the local censors, but ironically enough by governmental officials from "free" America who wished to avoid presenting the country in a negative light. Apparently, he says, in this country certain people have an interest in shunning art that portrays America as anything less than the Disneyesque.

Maybe that’s why artists have been targeted in this country by pols—for their tendency to tell the damning truth and to demand better treatment. It seems that whenever political leaders have little to offer, when they have few solutions to problems that face the vast majority of people, they expand efforts to censor and harass and curtail the free expression of artists.

But one should never underestimate the long-term power of the fringe. While a shameful year here in America, 1989 was also the year of the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, a remarkable peaceful transfer of power from the former communist dictatorship to a government led by the blacklisted playwright Vaclav Havel and his Jazz Club contemporaries. In fact, the revolutionary underground in Czechoslovakia had been fostered since the 1960s primarily by artists—theater performers, musicians, writers, publishers, rock n' rollers, and the like—who refused to countenance the false rosy-cheeked face presented by a corrupt government. The fringe overturned the norm on November 10, 1989, when, after massive national demonstrations, Havel addressed a crowd of half a million people from the balcony of the Melantrich publishing house. “The truth and love will always beat the lie and hatred,” he said. The Communist Party capitulated in early December, and Havel was elected president in free elections on December 29.

In the end, be consoled--political trends are as fleeting as the fringe is constant. There will always be freaks, artists, outsiders, and others sliding around the outskirts of the mainstream. Politicians who seek to resist such change and hold to the corrupt status quo can be banished by the forces of change. Think of Nixon here, or Pinochet in Chile, or the communist governments of Eastern Europe...

The fact is America, and indeed the world, absolutely needs artists and other fringe elements who express ideas that challenge the norm--it is only in this way that we evolve as a society. Artists and other elements on the fringe are the tomorrow, friends, and tomorrow is where the ignorance of today is gratefully forgotten.