Excerpt from Chapter Five
…Magritte? Why would a feminist, identity artist name a conceptual piece in honor of a Surrealist painter? It’s ironic in some way, I’m sure. You can’t get anywhere in the arts today by being sincere. Well, I was never particularly interested in Surrealism, but as someone with an art history minor I’ve learned the basics. And the one thing anyone who knows anything about Magritte knows about him is his pipe. Or his not pipe. His painting of a pipe, which, of course, is not really a pipe, it’s only a painting of a pipe. The painting is titled – and has those words writ large across the canvas – “This Is Not a Pipe.”
I half walk, half run, north, sneakers in hand, my old Nikon bouncing against my chest. My bare feet make squeaking sounds sliding through the tiny crests of silvery ground quartz. Rising heat waves from sun baking on the plane of sand ahead makes distant figures on the beach appear all ripply. I love that. Loved it as a kid, and I love it still. By the time I can see Agamenticus Head I am sweating. But I need to hurry. Gallery shows and rock concerts are my usual beat and I can fake having given them adequate coverage. However I do know enough about performance art to understand a piece can be profound for its length – hours and hours sometimes (perhaps to demonstrate boredom to those who have never previously experienced it) – or for its brevity: some can be as ephemeral as a butterfly brushing your cheek or a dog lifting its leg. So my professionalism requires that I don’t miss any of this one, long or short. Today, for body artist Lucinda York, all the world of Blue Heron Beach is her museum and her stage.
“I’ve had a report of a lewd display perpetrated on the beach this afternoon. Do you know anything about that?”
“No,” Lucinda says simply and neutrally. Then she adds, winging it and gesturing in the direction of the string bikini crowd, “Unless you mean those sweet, young things wagging their practically bare butts at any boy on the beach that’s not gay.”
The policewoman, someone who, due to the realities of our beauty obsessed culture – and maybe natural world realities as well – may be deprived of much opportunity for experience in sexual matters, turns red. But she keeps on going.
“The appearance of those women complies with local ordinances which prohibit the display of breasts and genitals, but make no provision as to a particular degree of covering necessary for buttocks.” Her color deepens as she runs through this formal list of sexual equipment. “Lewdity, in the form of undraped breasts and genitals, though they may be painted, is unlawful on Blue Heron Beach south of Agamenticus Head.”
“Lewdity?” Lucinda jeers.
The cop ignores her. “If you can explain how painting your genitals and displaying them publicly is not a lewd act you’d better start fast, lady,” she says, her own embarrassment, combined with Lucinda’s dismissive attitude, has started to put the little woman on edge. And, however little she is, she is still a cop.
One of the art lovers, almost a generation older than the others – a man well over four feet tall with a bemused look – offers a legal opinion. “Ms. York is merely exercising her first amendment rights to freedom of speech. Many thousands of young Americans went to their deaths to stop the Nazis. And thousands of Russian and Eastern European artists were sent to the gulags of the Soviets. Those systems repressed all forms of advanced art. We can’t have art outlawed in America. This is the USA in the 1980s, not Berlin in the 30s.”
“Are you trying to tell me,” the policewoman, scoffs, “that those young men went to their deaths so that this lady could parade around on Blue Heron Beach with her pu…vagina hanging out?”
The lifeguard snorts. Apparently, he is thinking that a lot of those men might have believed there could be worse things to die for…
“You don’t understand,” the reviewer from The Phoenix inserts her viewpoint, attempting to shed enlightenment, “Ms. York is not making a sexual display. She’s holding up a mirror to sexual display in our society and making a complex artistic statement about the nature of a cultural reality.”
I can see she’s got a better angle on what she’s going to write than I have. I should be taking notes.
“Well,” suddenly chimes in the lady in the skirted suit, who’d been standing, arms crossed, her bottom lip thrust up against the one on top, “just what’s so great about that?”
Everyone stares at her momentarily. Was this her business? Maybe it was. If this is about the public’s business, then she could be the closest thing to the general public present.
“I don’t suppose you read a lot of art reviews,” The Phoenix woman says.
“I’ve got three little kids and reading them fairy stories is all the time I have for things that aren’t for grown-ups.”
Touché, crosses my mind. While the cop and Lucinda York are for the moment letting surrogates – representatives of the art world and of an artless one – do their talking, I do an aside to Kevin.
“You’re an agent of a major institution in this town – mayor’s wife on the board and everything. Why don’t you take the artist under your institutional wing. – Tell the cop this is a gray area, or something.” Kevin seems to shrink an inch or so in height when I say this, but after a few seconds he, visually echoing the woman in the skirted suit, pushes his lower lip hard up into the upper in an expression that, in his case, looks like serious consideration. Perhaps he is getting a sense that an opportunity to act meaningfully is being presented.
“Perhaps I can help clear this up,” he says in a grave and formal tone; laying it on a little thick. They all, including an initially suspicious Lucinda, stare at him.
“I’m Kevin Perkins from the Northport Museum of Modern Art.”
“You stay out of this, fella,” the policewoman cautions.
“Yeah, it’s you modern art people,” accuses the lady with the skirted suit, feeling her importance as the cultural ambassador of middle-America, “that are responsible for so much of the lewdity that is polluting this country.”
“Lewdity!” Lucinda shrieks this time. “There’s no such word. And if you ever did use a dictionary you’d know a performance piece is not Modern Art, but Postmodern Art.”
The lifeguard, probably schooled at one of the area’s finest fraternities, demonstrates his own capacity for irony by putting in, “Well, I guess that clears everything up.”