Vegetarians and vegans are outraged, I read, over Lady Gaga’s meat dress.
Journalists scent a good story, though not the odor of decaying beef (reports claim it smelled good). We in the art world, meanwhile, have a different problem to ponder: Was this an example of pastiche, conscious revival or accidental imitation?
The most obvious point of reference, art historically, is “Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic” (1987) by the Czech-Canadian artist Jana Sterbak, consisting of 50 pounds of well tailored and salted steak. In photographs, it resembled a loudly patterned pink chintz frock.
This caused a scandal similar to the current Gaga brouhaha when displayed at the National Gallery, Ottawa, in 1991. In a highly original form of protest, people who disapproved of the work sent food scraps to the museum. There is, however, a wider and more intriguing lesson here: Rock and pop music have a lot to do with performance art.
You may have thought that the latter -- an avant-garde genre that emerged in the 1960s -- wasn’t of much immediate use to anyone. Not true. It has been a mine of ideas for more mainstream performers, especially the wilder exponents of rock and pop. There are, of course, plenty of connections.
To an extent, John Lennon and Yoko Ono were on parallel tracks even before they met. Lots of rock musicians are amateur artists -- Bob Dylan, David Bowie. And artists have been wearing what are effectively stage costumes of their own devising for more than a century.
Gauguin was one of the first. He went around Paris in a fur hat and self-designed cloak, wielding a cane carved with savage and sexual imagery. Unfortunately, though he played guitar -- badly, according to witnesses -- there is no reason to suppose the great post-Impressionist could put over a song. Otherwise, he sounds like a natural for fantasy rock.
Meat, as adopted for evening dress by Lady Gaga at the MTV Video Music Awards on Sept. 12, is ubiquitous in performance art; as common as stripes and squares in abstract painting or cows drinking at pools in Victorian landscape. Carolee Schneemann’s “Meat Joy” (1964), a classic of the genre, involved semi-nude individuals doing things with sausages, raw chicken and fish. The performances of Austrian artist Hermann Nitsch’s “Orgien Mysterien Theater” (“Theater of Orgies and Mysteries”) have involved plenty of blood, sheep carcasses and mock crucifixions.
That could blend well with some varieties of heavy metal. Even the wilder spirits in rock would hesitate to emulate the U.K. artist Stuart Brisley’s “And for Today … Nothing” (1972). This involved him lying for 10 days in a bath full of floating debris. Around him was strewn raw meat. After a while, flies laid eggs and maggots hatched.
It’s hard to imagine Lady Gaga going that far. She has, however, delved into the ideas of the Surrealists -- no slouches at performance either. That lobster hat of hers that made headlines last winter is obviously derived from Salvador Dali’s imagination. For the 1939 World’s Fair in New York he thought up an event entitled “The Dream of Venus,” which included live models clad in various types of seafood including crustacean hats and lobsters in lieu of bikini bottoms.
That last sounds like a possibility for an eye-catching Gaga garment. At any rate, anyone wanting to guess what the new queen of pop is going to don next would be well advised to thumb through a few textbooks on modern art.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)