Bras, Bards, and the Pleasure of the Found

James O'Brien

What is the difference between a thing seen and what do you mean. --Gertrude Stein, "Mrs. Reynolds."

Nice to see Star Tribune gossip columnist C.J. take time out from covering TV news personalities and Survivor shoulda-beens to give the thumbs-down to the Bob Dylan Victoria's Secret commercial the other day. In case you missed it, C.J., who has never written anything about music or arts that doesn't aim to placate and/or validate her readership's tacit normalcy (see: the Symbolina file), weighed in with the news that "Bob Dylan in a lingerie commercial is offensive on soooo many levels that it's hard to know where to start."

But she doesn't start--there or anywhere. She simply quotes Time magazine, which, in the "Good week for... Bad week for..." column of the April 16 issue opined: "Good week for GREED, as singer Bob Dylan--who has long disdained commercial endorsements--began appearing in a TV commercial for Victoria's Secret. As a model cavorts in a bra, panties, and spike heels, the 62-year-old Dylan croaks the song 'Love Sick.'" "Hey," concluded C.J., "at least Dylan wasn't wearing lingerie."

Here is where we are supposed to spit out our cornflakes in disgust, for C.J. has pushed all our hot buttons, the ones meant to light up phone lines and send us running to our letters-to-the-editor battle stations. Here is where we the feminists, the skeptics, and all other vanguards who are on constant patrol for cultural sellouts, older man-younger woman travesties, and anything at all having to do with that Trouble-in-River-City clincher, spike heels, rise up and say: No. We cannot have this. We are offended.

Well, speaking as a great admirer of women, lingerie, newspapers, and Dylan, the only thing I find offensive about any of it is the response typified by C.J. and Time, neither of which gives the slightest consideration to the idea that maybe there is something more to be gleaned from the coupling of well-lit images of beauty, eroticism, soft porn, or what-have-you with the sound of one of the planet's sharpest social commentators singing, "I'm walkin' through streets that are dead/I'm walking with you in my head...I'm sick of love, and I'm in the thick of it/This kind of love, I'm so sick of it."

Modernity is the transient, the fleeting, the contingent; it is the one half of art, the other being the eternal and the immutable.--Charles Baudelaire.

For me, this is one more example that we're moving too fast--too fast to stop and chew the roses, much less ingest anything that doesn't come with a box score or party line. So what happens is opinions get made and Gatling-gunned out into the ether, an insta-consensus is formed, and whispered voices like Dylan's become less valuable than the conclusions of on-deadline gossip columnists, ratings-nervous talk radio hosts, and the rest of the chattering hordes.

It's a small thing, but the C.J. item represents the sort of self-censorship and knee-jerk moralizing that has smothered this country in the past year, to the point where if the FCC cracks down on shock jocks, or if the Houston police arrest legitimate business owners for selling sex toys (true), we're barely able to call up, much less even recognize, our own outrage. Worse, what gets lost in this numbing-down process is an appreciation for nuance: When I first read the C.J. bit, I was reminded of a letter that MC5 comrade and lifetime lefty John Sinclair wrote to the editors of Sing Out! after the folk bible trashed Dylan's second album for its lack of political commentary and accepted folk-music cues.

"Anyone with a simple awareness, an elementary grasp of what's going on in this world, can talk about the obvious evil around him, but this is just superficial," wrote Sinclair. "Dylan has begun to go beneath the surface."

Which might be giving Dylan too much credit this time, but how would we know? How would we know if anyone at all was going beneath the surface, conditioned as we now are to stay away from there ourselves? Maybe Dylan deemed it a 60-second wink at "love" as defined by media. Or maybe he was simply having fun, being a dirty old man, making art--which is what my friend Kat did, with a short story based on the Bob-Victoria commercial, and you can be sure she isn't the only artist who was inspired by it.

Collage is the fortuitous encounter upon a non-suitable plane of two mutually distant realities.--Max Ernst.

This time last year, I was lucky enough to take a college art course called, simply, "Collage." I found myself studying three times a week with a very sharp group of art students, and being taught by Professor David Hannah, who, before delving into each day's works and critiques, would tack up on the pristine white classroom walls a quotation, some of which serve as the italicized copy-breakers (subheads!) on this page.

I spent the 10 weeks feeling stoned. Outside of class, everywhere I looked, I saw how things that don't fit together fit together, and noticed all sorts of possibilities for collages. In class, we juxtaposed disparate objects to see what meanings or nonmeanings we could recognize. We made concrete doughnuts, clay marshmallows, mutilated Barbie dolls, sex pistols, paper flowers, and we talked about them. We made poems out of found letters and notes. We tossed crumpled pieces of paper on the floor and stared at them. A couple of sweetly cynical--and ridiculously talented--visual artists and Dylan fans named Meg and Ping hooked up, and some old guy wrote a song called "The Mad Ripple" about how some learning experiences reverberate long after the bell rings.

At the end of the quarter, I had lunch with Hannah, a serious artist and generous teacher who was at Berkeley during the free-speech movement of the '60s. He told me about his life and his victory over depression. Near the end of lunch he said, "Basically, with whatever we do, I think our main job down here is to keep our spirits..."

"Up," I finished for him, because I could tell he felt sheepish about the seemingly sunny, simple philosophy he'd come to after all his wise 60-something years.

"Up," he nodded, and I recognized then that how he keeps his spirits up is by living his life as a collage, wherein various seemingly incongruent elements or personae are brought together to form a work of art that's beautiful unto itself--even though it might confuse the shit out of the jury.

We often think that when we have completed our study of one we know all about two, because "two" is "one and one." We forget that we have still to make a study of "and."--Sir Arthur Eddington, "The Nature of the Physical World."


Jim Walsh can be reached at [email protected] or 612.372.3775.

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