KENT MONKMAN – Indigenous Cree artist.
With a friend, I visited the Royal Ontario Museum or ROM and its exhibition of Kent Monkman paintings – kitsch, trans, bi-sex, indigenous mythologies, worship of constellations and of our mother the Earth, denunciations of colonialism, parodies of the Western Tradition of heroic painting, hyperbolic denunciations of the residential schools, and the whole shebang – every possible Canada Council box was ticked.
Worship of the Earth, our mother, which it is said the first nations indulged in and practiced before Europeans turned up and ruined this cosmic unity, is now very fashionable since it is clear that agricultural and industrial, and post-industrial civilizations are ruining the ecology upon which we depend for our very existence.
The Earth is now Gaia, the Earth as a Goddess, and also, as theorized by James Lovelock and others, as a self-regulating system, with the carbon cycle, which we are throwing out of kilter, keeping global temperatures over the centuries within a liveable range. So native myths and ideas of Oneness with the Earth, recycled and rewritten by Monkman, find an easy and fashionable, and legitimate echo in the ecological and green, and climate change movements of today.
The painting is glossy, hyper-realist style (almost), features g-strings and scarlet stilettos and transparent lacy bras in abundance, lots of more-or-less two-spirited drag queens, lolling around, or posing heroically or mystically, often not wearing much in the way of drag, and full of wink-wink allusions to lots of things.
It was fun and allowed us to be both snarky and awe-struck; the man is, to a certain extent, ironic and wry about his own narcissism – which is certainly writ cosmically large and which is conflated with native mythologies and native cultural and linguistic redemption – if I am gay, trans, exhibitionist, mostly naked, or almost, well, then, I am, in being all these things, returning to my roots.
Neurosis has become a cause. I am not sick; society is; we had a version of that in the 1960s with anti-psychiatry and counter-culture and repressive permissiveness and liberation culture and the sexual revolution and drugs and camp-gay-kitsch irony, which was a splendid thing, as Camille Paglia used to point out, and which Monkman recycles, such is the way of art, reusing old tropes and memes, retrofitted for new purposes.
Madonna dabbled in S&M regalia – black leather, latex, etc., that she lifted from the semi-underground S&M high-style fetish scene of the 1960s and earlier; and Lady Gaga in 2010 stole – a homage sans doute – the steak-dress idea, the Flesh Dress (1987) from Canadian artist Jana Sterbak.
“Transgression” – watered down and sanitized – becomes a brand.
The Zeitgeist is a gyre.
I adhere to the idea, absolutely, that society is sick (destructive and unsustainable and largely inauthentic); deviance, sometimes, can be liberation, ecstatic, erotic, and, occasionally, a barrel of laughs. Sometimes, it can just be madness and not fun madness, either. Psychosis is not a lark.
Those suffering from gender dysphoria are not on the whole happy campers – though, now, it can be exalted and turned into a carnival – so much the better. Life, as they say, is a masquerade.
In any case, what was once considered illness & stigmatized – the trans ideology and others – has become the reigning doctrine and fashionable, while the old fogy so-called normal people – once known as whitebread heterosexual missionary-position-only folk – have been demoted to “cis-” which rhymes, I think, with sissy.
The playful lustful “gaze” here, in Kent Monkman’s world, is gay, trans- and is therefore acceptable – even exalted; but if the lustful gaze were heterosexual – the much-maligned “male gaze” – then the show would almost certainly have been banned, and certainly not welcome in the hallowed halls of the ROM.
Old hypocrisies give way to new hypocrisies.
Stigmata are reversed and become haloes; such is “othering” in the moralizing texture of today.
Boys, we know, are in crisis, and Jordan Peterson is their prophet. And girls, too, are not doing so well either; they are uneasy, unhappy, and disoriented since it appears that there is an epidemic of young pubescent women who wish to be boys, with all the self-mutilation that that implies.
For some of them, the transition will be liberating and justified; for many, I suspect, it will be a mistake and a tragedy. Social media, social contagion, and proselytism play roles here, as well as the profit motive and a certain amount of déformation professionnelle, I suspect.
I liked the show. Our sniggers were, in part, a form of complicity with the artist, though, as white colonial imperialist settlers of a certain ripe vintage, we did retain an ironic and critical distance from his pictorial Agitprop musings, some of which were, indeed, stylistically, reminiscent of Soviet Realism or Nazi Classicism.
Propaganda is cool as long as you dress it up in drag.
That said, I highly recommend the show. The man is feverishly, heroically productive.
We also wandered wide-eyed through an exhibition of fantastic creatures based on the fictional world of J K Rowling – I was amazed that her name was allowed to stand, what with the ferocious – totally vicious and unjustified campaign of trans ideologues on the warpath against her because she has the temerity to state that women exist. [This they interpret, or misinterpret, as an attack on trans- & hence as an example of “transphobia.”]
The Fantastic Animals show had ecological themes.
If you approached the schematic silhouette of a tree, suddenly luminous creepy skeletal insect-like little critters would appear, chirruping and dancing a war dance in front of you and warning you to get the hell away from their sacred tree. Lesson learned!
Trees are sacred. [We settlers cut them down to make way for fields, wheat, and high-productivity fodder for human critters; hence there are far too many human critters on the planet. A big mistake!]
The fantastic creatures show was fun, some of it creepy, some of it enlightening – and it is there to tell us, quite rightly, that we are causing the extinction of a great many real species – who are as wonderous as Rowling’s fantastical animals – and that we should do everything in our power to save them. Yes, indeed – we should.
Just as we should use Kent Monkman’s visual extravaganza to enter, even if by a glitzy two-spirited side door, the world of native mysticism and the evolution of the present-day native worldview, in some ways more pluralistic, supple, and humane than our own, largely purely instrumental attitude toward nature, ourselves, and all the rest.