My Grandfather Met Liberace and I’ve Never Been to Burning Man

5.5 / Slapstick and the Sublime

My Grandfather Met Liberace and I’ve Never Been to Burning Man

By Sean Uyehara July 9, 2014

As I began to write this, I was informed by my social-media news feed that Miley Cyrus told a drunken Jennifer Lawrence to “get it together” after this year’s Oscar ceremony. I note it because, to my mind, one of the many tropes paraded and wrestled over in the field bordered by art and entertainment is earnestness—or, on the flipside of earnestness, camp and irony. Most readers are keenly aware of the role that irony plays in contemporary artistic practice. If not, one can catch up by reading Salon, which seems to publish an article on sincerity in culture once a week. For example, they grapple with David Foster Wallace and what he really meant when he said that irony is killing culture.1 So, I won’t go through the historical underpinnings of ironic development (except when convenient to my points later). But the gist at this moment is: How are we supposed to take this? Is there any way to react to Miley Cyrus telling Jennifer Lawrence to get it together at the Oscars other than ironically? And by that I mean we might say, “This headline is no headline. This news is not news,” and so on. Of course one could take it earnestly: “I care about Jennifer Lawrence. I want to know about Miley Cyrus. This is news!” And, while I haven’t done the field research, I am sure that some people do respond earnestly—one-thousand-percent sure, I guess. I have been trained by our culture to suspect that there’s something disturbed in worrying about a potential Jennifer Lawrence–drinking problem, but at its core there’s nothing wrong with earnestness itself. I’m totally serious. I guess the real deep thinkers out there can take a stance of earnest irony. I understand that. Everybody wants to be an individual, and I’m just like everyone else in that regard.

At its core there’s nothing wrong with earnestness itself.

The photographer, performance artist, and filmmaker Laurel Nakadate records herself dancing with men she meets through Craigslist. In a performance piece titled Oops! (2000), the scantily clad Nakadate lip-syncs to Britney Spears’s “Oops!…I Did It Again” while dancing with multiple strangers in their homes. She earnestly (it seems) enacts quotidian childhood fantasies of fame and sexual power and weakness, like dancing for a camera while mimicking a pop star, or playing the damsel in distress forced to marry the sadistic prince. To me, these works are endlessly fascinating, even entertaining. For some viewers, her pieces can be quite troubling.

When I presented Nakadate’s work in San Francisco, I arranged for numerous stores and coffee shops to display her work, showing proprietors in advance the exact videos that would be displayed in their storefronts. In one case, a storeowner was confronted with a potential sexual-harassment lawsuit from an employee who felt that the videos were offensive; they were subsequently removed. I can’t say that the employee was wrong. I can see how the videos could be perceived as strange, even hurtful. The employee took them seriously, perhaps earnestly. And maybe this is the most correct way to take them, as documents of real events that happened that include complicated emotions and displays of potentially unhealthy fantasies.

Chris Munch. Letters from the Big Man, 2011 (film still); 01:55:00. Courtesy of Fir and Cedar and SnagFilms. 

When attempting to catalog differences between earnestness and irony, I first tend to assume that earnestness is concerned with face value—taking something for what it is—which prods me to consider that a kind of earnestness collapses layers of cultural difference. In such instances, earnestness may seem reactionary and potentially stupid, like when Forrest Gump sincerely apologizes, “Sorry I had a fight in the middle of your Black Panther party.” But this seems incorrect and doesn’t give earnestness its due. One can view something earnestly while seeing deeply into its cultural context and lineage. For instance, one might assume that the employee I mentioned was earnestly constructing and reacting to an allegory of the production of the videos. S/he was concerned that there was real damage being done at the site of production, that the middle-aged male participants were being ridiculed and exploited for an art piece or that a woman was participating in her own objectification and harm.2 Or maybe the employee sincerely thought the videos sucked, and they made him/her not want to be at work. With earnestness, one could (but doesn’t have to) view something in just one way. In contrast, when we view a thing ironically, we must perceive it in at least two ways, and one of those ways is awry.

In 2010, Nakadate created a work in which she photographed herself crying each day for a year. It’s a somewhat unfathomable exercise that bears repeating: every day, at least once a day, she cried and photographed her act of crying. 365 Days: A Catalogue of Tears begs to be scrutinized at its seam, which is formed by a yarn-like twist of earnestness and irony. Is she for real? For many of us, seeing someone cry or crying ourselves is one of the most real things we can experience; the surface and the interior are (or appear to be) one and the same. We have developed multiple systems, aesthetics, and modes of representation that are aimed at picturing something invisible: the emotional states and desires of human beings. Nakadate’s project questions those systems: What really happened during those mythical other scenes when the photos were purportedly taken?

Every day, at least once a day, she cried and photographed her act of crying.

The play between irony and earnestness is a performance that’s been around for a long while. But we’re somewhat stuck on it, aren’t we? It would be reductionist yet basically correct to say that Dada—that series of aesthetic practices that originated in the early twentieth century to confront systems of rationality—haunts contemporary American art, film, and culture. Dada effected a defamiliarizing shock when it revealed art as an institution in and of itself.3 This is satisfying. We can see it, we get it: Art is isolated and vulnerable. At least that’s what I’m guessing it felt like because I’m not one hundred thirty years old. But I’m still attracted to the Dadaist conceit of using absurdity and crassness to expose the hypocrisy of rationality and civilization—all right, fucker? But, like every kind of nostalgia, this one’s a myth. Not only are we never going to feel that shock again, it probably never was felt in the first place. Yet we attempt to recapture that moment of shock, of knowing, of truth. We rehearse the narratives, reconstitute and reify our memories, and maniacally mark the boundaries between things. But there was never a time when we didn’t look for what was awry.

In art-historical terms, Dada is often positioned not only as a reaction to World War I but also as a reaction against Aestheticism, those art-for-art’s-sake guys. But the Aesthetes were well aware of the potential vacuity of their approach. The recognition is neatly summed up by Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, a play that centers on its characters’ lack of identity, drive, or utility, as well as the lifestyle of the writer himself. Like Wilde, the characters portrayed in The Importance of Being Earnest are rich. They leech off society and have access to every comfort without being productive. In our society, that is considered deeply amoral. If it’s possible to be radically lazy, Wilde’s characters were perhaps that. Wilde was accused of homosexuality, which he denied despite its truth, and he paid for his perceived transgressions with imprisonment. Wilde’s sexuality was articulated to convey decadence. But it’s difficult not to assume that society cloaked Wilde with a fearful and catalyzing nothingness, which threatened to expose every boundary as ad hoc and materialist, unmasking everything in his life as amoral or meaningless.

Liberace, hanging out in his front yard.

I admit that I have a preoccupation with famous people, and I often wonder why I believe I know anything about anyone I’ve never met…or even myself.

I’ve always loved the story of my grandfather meeting Liberace. It was in the early 1950s just after “The Liberace Show” debuted, and they met in a hospital where my grandfather and Liberace were both visiting loved ones. They shared a table in the hospital cafeteria, and my grandfather thought Liberace was a solid young man. I want to say they ate soup, but I would just be making that up.

According to my mother, whenever Liberace appeared on TV, my grandfather would discuss what a nice young man he was. Of course, he didn’t then, and didn’t ever, realize that Liberace was gay or that he was leading a closeted life. He attended to Liberace in all earnestness and just saw him as a thoroughly entertaining person. (At least, that’s what we think my grandfather thought.) I am tickled by the thought that he would see Liberace marching down a white staircase that seemed to descend from the air, wearing thirty-seven rings and a turquoise-and-gold cape that looked like it was made from the wallpaper at Versailles, and declare, “Now that’s the kind of man I want you to marry.”

My grandfather wasn’t the only one who thought that. From the mid-1950s through at least the mid-1960s, Liberace was considered an eligible bachelor for women and a heartthrob. For a little while, his primary celebrity competition was Elvis, and like Elvis, Liberace was slated to play the lead in several films. However, Sincerely Yours (1955), the first film with Liberace in the starring role, was a disaster at the box office and with critics. This movie is an amazing study in one’s own viewership: please see it. What does this film mean to you? Can you watch it earnestly? Or is the only possible viewing position one of irony and camp? In the film, Liberace plays a charismatic pianist who, during a concert, loses his hearing and thinks he must give up his career. Rather than learning sign language, he learns to lip read. He spies on people from his apartment overlooking Central Park with high-powered binoculars and lip-reads their conversations. Unsolicited, he then inserts himself into the lives of the people he watches as a good Samaritan, giving them gifts, advice, and so forth. He functions like Google Ads or the master guard in a Central Park version of a Panopticon.

Images from the Burning Man festival, where people seem to feel things that I might be afraid to feel.

I can’t remember why the film is titled Sincerely Yours. I know it features a letter with that closing phrase, but the movie is hardly sincere. It feels more like the manifestation of a very confused screenwriter who lacks the self-awareness to realize that he is a neurotic mess, which is why he can’t be in a lasting relationship. So, maybe the film really is sincere. Maybe it’s a cry for help.

Liberace was nothing if not entertaining. He was literally called “Mr. Showmanship.” He was inarguably an amazing pianist. I guess what I most like regarding Liberace is why all of his adornment, excess, and financial success remove him from the field of art. Is his approach too earnest to be art? Is it too much aestheticism? But what could be more Dada than Liberace?

To be an earnest appreciator of Liberace, do I have to only listen to his music—its tone, its timbre—and note its emotional and intellectual impact? Or can I earnestly note how absolutely and directly dazzled I am by everything about his presence? I don’t want to get all New Age-y, but if we are being earnest, don’t we derive pleasure when something resonates with our own way of thinking—or, in other words, when something is true? Liberace seems truly great to me, authentically creative, layer after layer. But he is, of course, too tied up with material excess. Is that the issue? Is he too ostentatiously wealthy to be an artist? His creative persona is closer to entertainment. But it also connotes a deep fear of capitalism and its emptiness.

When Steve McQueen won the Academy Award for best picture, his marketed narrative said that he is a video artist working outside the Hollywood system—outside with Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender, and Benedict Cumberbatch. I cried while watching 12 Years a Slave. My tears were genuine. When the theater lights came up at the end of the film, someone in the audience was thoroughly sobbing. Loudly, with a true ache in her voice. Her crying struck me deeply, and I had to leave because I could tell that if I stayed, I was going to cry like that too. As I drove home, I wondered: Why was I so embarrassed at feeling genuine sorrow in a public place? Did I feel manipulated? Is the artistic apparatus just too overwhelming, like how I imagine churches felt to parishioners in the Middle Ages? Is it too staged, too entertaining—and how can I be entertained by slavery? And, as usual, pondering those questions got me out of feeling earnestly moved or dealing with my own shortcomings, again. Phew.

Emma de Swaef and Marc James Roels. Oh Willy..., 2012 (film still); animated short film; 00:17:00. Courtesy of Beast Animation. 

The filmmaker Chris Munch fosters a certain ambiguity regarding earnestness and irony in his work. He’s made many films, including The Hours and Times (1991), which presents John Lennon and Brian Epstein as a couple in love just as The Beatles are about to become massive stars. It’s a beautiful film, full of honest reflections on relationships, fame, and social norms. Munch’s subsequent work is marked by sincerity, even his latest, Letters from the Big Man (2011), which is about a psychic relationship that develops between a forest surveyor and a Sasquatch. The film presents Sasquatches as real characters with no camp, no irony, and no justifications. They just are. We hear a Sasquatch’s words as they are transmitted psychically to the surveyor. When I watch the film, I am left with a crisis in viewership. The film has no signposts or winks of irony. It is not sensational but a direct and beautiful study of a relationship between two species living amid a distressed environment. The film acts as a mirror of my own limitations.  Can I take it earnestly? I really want to, so desperately. Here’s what Munch has to say on the Sasquatch:

[F]or any of our people to gain a deeper understanding of the cultural, social, and physiological peculiarities of the elusive beings, it would seem to require a willingness to question deeply held assumptions about intelligence, communication, and evolution… The very qualities that make [Sasquatch] well suited to interaction with another primate species—an overriding curiosity and willingness to observe, unobtrusively, over extended periods of time, a concern for animals and an ability to think like them, an ease with living close to nature, and often a disregard of convention—are the same qualities that can easily be called into question by the media and academia, often in the most hostile manner.4

It would seem that a Sasquatch is the ultimate practitioner of earnest presence. It exudes an exemplary ability to pay attention, to consider, to value, to empathize, and to commune without any hang-ups or need for conventions or institutionalized processes. So much more primal yet so much more evolved. Like a hairy alien from the future that’s completely comfortable with its own body and that would never laugh at the penciled illustrations in The Joy of Sex.

I have never felt comfortable when asked the question, “Do you want to go to Burning Man?” My answer: No, I don’t. But I don’t have a good reason why. I have a vague feeling that I don’t want to feel the feelings that people seem to feel there. But that’s my problem. Like the concept of Burning Man is a mirror reflecting back to me my shortcomings in deeply contemplating something—especially when that thing is myself.

Chris Munch. Letters from the Big Man, 2011 (film still); 01:55:00. Courtesy of Fir and Cedar and SnagFilms. 

So, what do Liberace, Sasquatch, and Burning Man have in common? Perhaps the closest answer can be found in an animated short film, Oh Willy…, one of the best I’ve seen in a long time. It concerns a young protagonist named Willy who returns to the nudist camp where he grew up in order to bury his mother. It follows his path to creating a deep, perhaps even psychic relationship with a massive hairy creature. It is a rhapsody in earnestness, I think. There is a tactile quality to the film’s figures, which seem to be made of felt. More than anything, the film continuously prods a viewer to consider that hair follicles cover the body. It reminds me that all people are furry creatures, in the end. It’s a great equalizer. And there’s a kind of uneasy horror in remembering one’s own body that can get in the way of being earnest. When confronted by a difficult idea, I start to feel time passing. For my part, I tend to change the channel as soon as I notice my own hair or something worse. Maybe that’s what earnestness is: allowing oneself to sit with a feeling or idea against all hairy odds, to give oneself time to recognize its worth or worthlessness and, if it’s a true idea or feeling, to bond with it. Yes, this all sounds Freudian and return-of-the-repressed–like. Freud was the greatest theorizer of neurotic defenses, in that anything one denies is a symptom of one’s illness. But don’t let that deter you from recognizing your real comforts, if you have them. Just sit for a few minutes with that hair covering your body or that itch wherever. Give it at least a few minutes; then scratch it. You deserve it.

Notes

  1. For more on the definition of irony, see Peter Finocchiaro, “What David Foster Wallace Got Wrong about Irony: Our Culture Doesn’t Have Nearly Enough of It,” Salon, April 27, 2014, http://www.salon.com/2014/04/27/what_david_foster_wallace_got_wrong_about_irony_our_culture_doesnt_have_nearly_enough_of_it/.
  2. Frank Smigiel makes this point more concretely and elegantly in his essay on art and labor, “A Producer’s Journal, or Judgment A-Go-Go,” Art Practical, April 3, 2014, http://www.artpractical.com/feature/a-producers-journal-or-judgment-a-go-go/. Here’s a quote (emphasis his): “What is so compelling to me about this problem is the perception that the art object needs to carry its own scene of production for it to be considered an art object at all.
  3. I’m referring here to the wonderful argument made powerfully and succinctly by Peter Bürger in Theory of the Avant-Garde (1974), that the power of the avant-garde and Dada in particular is to expose the institutional nature of artistic practice, by shocking those who attend to art into recognition.
  4. From the press kit of Letters from the Big Man.

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