BY Anwyn Crawford in Opinion | 29 SEP 10

A Well-Worn Tactic

From Lady Gaga to Nick Cave, a brief history of meat and performance

BY Anwyn Crawford in Opinion | 29 SEP 10

I wonder if Lady Gaga has ever heard of Meat Joy? Not Carolee Schneemann’s 1964 performance piece of the same name, a dance of sausages and naked bodies, but the short-lived Texas band, who released one self-titled LP in 1984 and promptly broke up. Meat Joy’s album is eclectically unclassifiable, though you might call it punk – punk in the best sense, like The Raincoats, restlessly curious and acerbically funny. It begins with a woman’s deadpan sarcasm: ‘There’s another pair of breasts on the other side of town / They’re bigger than yours / So I gotta fool around’. And lo, the connection between feminism and meat, between the female body and its objectification as mere flesh, is forged once again.


Carolee Schneemann, Meat Joy (1964)

To anyone with a passing knowledge of feminist art, Lady Gaga’s meat dress may have provoked little more than a yawn. There’s Schneemann of course, whose performance at New York’s famed Judson Memorial Church took place not only in the context of early Happenings, but also, given her background as a painter, should be seen in the light of Abstract Expressionism and its unbridled machismo. Willem de Kooning, in particular, painted some of the most unrestrainedly misogynist canvases of the era, his women a fearful welter of raw flesh, ready to devour and be devoured.


Jean Dubuffet, from the series ‘Corps de dame’ (Ladies’ Bodies, 1950)

De Kooning’s work was part of the pronounced (male) Modernist tendency to depict the female body as pure, primitive carnality. Jean Dubuffet’s 1950 ‘Corps de dame’ (Ladies’ Bodies) series of massively rotund women recalls the Venus of Willendorf, while Hans Bellmer’s 1958 bondage photograph (below) of his lover Unica Zürn – trussed up with string like a pork chop – is captioned ‘Keep In A Cool Place’.


You’d be hard pressed to find a more coolly economical statement of Surrealist attitudes to women, and women artists. Bellmer’s compatriots Otto Dix and George Grosz had, a decade earlier, satirized political corruption in Germany via grotesquely exaggerated images of women as voluptuous prostitutes and insatiable bourgeois wives. With all these piggy ladies on display, is it any wonder that later feminist artists deployed meat as a material of critique and also, in Schneemann’s words, as a ‘celebration of flesh as material’?


Jana Sterbak, Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic (1987)

Jana Sterbak’s Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic (1987) has already been cited as precedent for Lady Gaga’s carcass antics at the Video Music Awards two weeks ago, but a more useful reference point is Linder Sterling’s 1982 performance at The Haçienda with her post-punk band Ludus. ‘At the same time at The Haçienda they were showing lots of soft porn, and they thought it was really cool. I took my revenge,’ she recalled in 1997. Linder wrapped cuts of raw meat in the pages of porn magazines and threw them at the audience, decorated the club’s tables with tampons, and took to the stage in a dress made of chicken entrails. Oh yes, and she wore a large black dildo, too. Straddling – ahem – the worlds of fine art, performance and pop music, Linder’s feminist riposte to the male-dominated environment of Manchester post-punk is Lady Gaga 28 years early, which is not to make the hackneyed point that Lady Gaga is ‘unoriginal’, but rather that the music industry still drives its female participants to certain – one might say necessary – extremes.

But there’s a flipside to the feminist use of meat-as-metaphor (and material), and that’s the history of meat and meat songs within black popular music. Recorded in 1931 at the height of the Great Depression, Skip James’ ‘Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues’ laments the life of an itinerant African–American worker, ‘driftin’ from door to door’ in search of employment. He ends up as a slaughterer, then as now a physically exhausting and often dangerous occupation: ‘If I ever can get up / Off this old hard killin’ floor / Lord I’ll never get down / This low no more.’ The song’s killing floor is both the abattoir and the world outside of it, which was equally ruthless to animals and workers, particularly black workers in America’s rural south, where James lived and recorded his music.

James’ song inaugurated a documentarian blues tradition – one which crops up decades later even outside of music, in Charles Burnett’s landmark 1977 drama Killer Of Sheep, which depicts life in Los Angeles’ tough Watts ghetto through the eyes of Stan, an abattoir employee. But Howlin’ Wolf’s ‘Killing Floor’ (1966), in which the slaughterhouse stands for the violence done by a woman to a man’s heart, was even more influential, covered by the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Led Zeppelin, among many others. You can trace this psychosexual metaphor of meat as murder (apologies, Morrissey) right through to Nick Cave’s Abattoir Blues (2004).

While meat in the blues tradition has referred to economic exploitation, it has been used by female musicians and artists to draw attention to sexual exploitation – more specifically, the exploitation of the gaze, which the wearer of meat, in draping her body this way, makes both visible and visibly offensive. It is meant to repulse and to shock: to bring to the surface, rather literally, a condition of being seen which women live with daily.

But the wearing of meat is also bizarrely alluring and sexually confrontational: Gaga is fully alive inside her meat dress, in a way that Roland Barthes might have appreciated. In his 1957 essay ‘Steak and Chips’, Barthes ruminates on the ‘prestige of steak’ for French intellectuals:

…steak is for them a redeeming food, thanks to which they bring their intellectualism to the level of prose and exorcise, through blood and soft pulp, the sterile dryness of which they are constantly accused.

And one might send that as a memo to Camille Paglia, whose recent characterization of Lady Gaga as ‘sexually dysfunctional’ is, as an intellectual statement, barely worth chewing over.