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Three P’s: Performance; Personal; Political

October 4, 2009

The feminist warhorse of a phrase “the personal is political” sounded punchy to me, the first time I heard it, but also cryptic. As I understand it now, the personal is the incidentals of an individual’s life that seem too particular to hold up a mirror to society in general. The political, on the other hand, declares trends and patterns – much as elected officials, on paper, represent their constituents. When the personal is political, people are a product of their time. Nothing happens in a vacuum, separate from the conditions that created it.

Used in moderation, it’s a handy way to approach thinking about a whole mess of topics that people tend to tiptoe around. I’ve found a version of it useful in approaching analysis of art. Art, in its many forms, has a long and illustrious reputation for being the product of intensely personal, and therefore obscure, concerns (the Romantic period in art is a particularly colorful example). If the things artists want to express were less obscure, wouldn’t they just talk about them plainly, over coffee, with friends, rather than coming at the topic wielding a paintbrush or fistful of metaphors, instigating overblown attacks on convention like Hannibal leading elephants over the Alps?

It’s easy to instinctively keep a respectful distance from other people’s art. But when you consider the reality that even a seemingly introspective work now exists in the public domain, you can be confident that you, a member of the same domain, have the resources to perceive the work critically. The great joy – even the point – of performed art is that it’s made, live, for an audience. And although what’s being said or done in the performance may be outlandish, the building blocks are as mundane as almost anything could be – other people.

If at a basic level our bodies define the sexes, performed art, where the body is the basic material in use, is a great opener onto a discussion of feminism. Physical interactions have a timeless and cross-cultural visceral power.

In my experience, dance is one of the disciplines people are most inclined to keep at arm’s length. Unlike theater, film, or most popular music, dance is (usually) wordless. It uses bodies as stand-ins for everything else that happens between people – that’s where you get duets that tell a story, or where you feel certain you know the ins and outs of a couple’s relationship, all without being actually told.

Dance, like anything, has a history. And as the concept of “the personal is political” reminds us, what in the moment may seem unique often in retrospect is clearly a product of its time. Within the last two centuries of European history, dance was a low-class occupation – and it was also just that, an occupation, rather than a calling. Dance pieces were entertainment, suited to the trends of taste at the time, rather than private visions molded by a choreographer into art. Female dancers were seen as hardly above prostitutes on the social ladder, because they, like prostitutes, reverted to the last-ditch leverage they had to earn a living: showing their bodies.

These days, if you go see a blockbuster ballet like Romeo and Juliet or Swan Lake, you’re likely to see lean, wiry women playing female characters whose stories of social imprisonment (often in Renaissance, Elizabethan, or Victorian times) and struggle for an iota of agency in their lives is expressed by bodies of seemingly limitless power. I bet that, at least in American and in most European cultures, the word “dancer” suggests a female image, rather than a male one. I would guess that has much to do with the preferences of the paying audience (men) through a lot of those cultures’ history. Adding to the perception of dance as a largely female activity might be the comparatively less opportunity straight women have had to express, in economic terms, their desire for beautiful male presences. I suspect there’s a certain sense of controlled power involved as well. Women’s power is well-expressed in performance; men’s is wasted there, when they have so many other, more concrete environments in which to express it.

“The personal is political” is a lens made for a critical eye. It deserves a crack at any area that skepticism and analysis have skirted before. A feminist outlook encourages us to challenge our habitual perceptions of the status quo – and art can be a star challenger.

One Comment
  1. October 13, 2009 4:20 pm

    bell hooks talks about this phrase and how problematic it is in her book, “Feminist Theory From Margin to Center.” I left it at school today, so I can’t quote it directly, but I highly suggest you check it out!

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