Lady Gaga's Meat Joy

Lady Gaga on the cover of Vogue Hommes Japan, image from Huffington Post
I find it very intriguing that I get asked my opinion about Lady Gaga....a lot. There is no doubt that her provocative and controversial aesthetic sensibilities beg the question of how much her work verges on performance art rather than mere spectacle or celebrity shock. And I know this will certainly not be the first time I blog about her-- I have already mentioned the quandary of following her on Twitter-- but it is just a matter of picking the right moments to weigh in. Case in point is the news that circulated today about the latest cover of Vogue Hommes Japan, which features Gaga wearing what looks like a disintegrating carpaccio bikini.

Much of the discussion as I can discern so far has focused on PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and their reaction. They are naturally none too pleased. The organization's president, Ingrid Newkirk, told the New York Daily News, "Lady Gaga's job is to do outlandish things, and this certainly qualifies as outlandish because meat is something you want to avoid putting on or in your body." Beyond that, the celebrity blogs and news outlets have generally focused on the transgression of boundaries and the notion that she has come up with something completely outrageous and even more "out there" than her infamous muppet outfit.

But has she really?

For those of us who know our history of performance art-- and I want to note here that Lady Gaga in her earlier life, as Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, had attended NYU's Tisch School of the Arts and likely took her share of art history classes-- we would be reminded of  Carolee Schneemann's Meat Joy, first performed at the First Festival of Free Expression in Paris in May of 1964 (see screen grab below). In the performance, Schneemann together with a group of male and female participants, rolled around on the floor with raw poultry, meat, fish, and other materials while grooving to the soundtrack of popular 1960's rock and roll hits. UbuWeb incidentally has a great film clip of this performance.

Of the work, Schneemann has suggested that the transgression of boundaries relates to explorations around flesh, gender, and social ritual: "Meat Joy is an erotic rite -- excessive, indulgent, a celebration of flesh as material: raw fish, chicken, sausages, wet paint, transparent plastic, ropes, brushes, paper scrap. Its propulsion is towards the ecstatic -- shifting and turning among tenderness, wildness, precision, abandon; qualities that could at any moment be sensual, comic, joyous, repellent." In other words, the themes suggested in Gaga's "shocking" photo-- the juxtaposition of beauty and raw cow flesh, sexy pin-up pose and ridiculous context-- find some resonance with these same notions. Famed avant-garde filmmaker Jonas Mekas sums up the importance of Schneemann's provocations slightly differently in a 1965 essay saluting Carolee Schneemann ("In Praise of the Surface"): "Carolee Schneemann’s Meat Joy brings us back to the touch, smell, to the surfaces of things and bodies; it accepts, with love, everything that our insistence on ideas (certain ideas) kept us away from; even what was “repellent,” like “raw” meat, or chicken guts, what we usually dread and fear to touch...Schneemann removes the social context or, rather, the familiar social contexts, to break us open, to expose our senses, to bring us back to our senses—and to get rid of prescribed meanings."

Gaga has discussed at length her goals of building love, acceptance, and tolerance for people who feel like social outcasts and freaks (as she claims to have at many points in her life) and affectionately refers to her fans as "my little monsters." Perhaps then it is worth thinking about Gaga's latest act as one of transgression--yes--but also one that carries the weight and memory of a far more profound idea.

Screen Grab from Schneemann's Meat Joy (1964) 
Further reading:

Morgan, Robert C. "Carolee Schneemann: The politics of eroticism." Art Journal 56.4 (1997): 97.

Schneemann, Carolee. "Aphrodite Speaks: on the Recent Performance Art of Carolee Schneemann." New Theatre Quarterly 16.62 (2000): 155.