When 50-year old dancer Isadora Duncan was throttled as her chiffon scarf got caught in the wheels of a sports car in Nice in 1927, Gertrude Stein commented sagely ‘affectations can be dangerous’. At this stage in Duncan’s life, the loose, interpretive freestyle of dance she was famed for was beginning to pall. Freedom of expression wearing yards of chiffon and little else was excusable for a lithe young girl but in latter years, having gained a few extra pounds, Isadora couldn’t really disguise her lack of balletic discipline and technique with charm.
And thus we turn to Madonna’s latest endeavour: Art for Freedom. Apart from the odd YouTube teaser about her SecretProjectRevolution film collaboration with Steven Klein, she’s been uncharacteristically quiet of late. And now thanks to simultaneous underground screenings of the 17-minute movie worldwide and a launch party-cum-performance piece at New York’s Gagosian Gallery last night we now know why.
The B&W film, exquisitely shot and styled, is the launch of a new platform for Madonna to announce that ‘the power of art can lead to peace’. Are there words more chilling to fans when uttered by a pop singer than ‘my goal is to show by example my creative commitment to inspire change in the world through artistic expression’? God preserve us from artistic expression: that sly, fascistic phrase.
The fundamental flaw in SecretProjectRevolution is that you’d need to be Madonna’s analyst to understand what her art is trying to express these days. I started to doubt Madonna’s modus operandi when she recorded American Life and embraced violent, brutalist imagery in the name of peace. SecretProject Revolution begins in a Cabaret-meets-Grand Theft Auto V fashion with our fishnet-clad heroine balletically gunning down an exotic collection of sexually ambiguous, multi-cultural beauties at close range to a Kurt Weill soundtrack.
We cut to M in a fringed-wig, mackintosh and stilettos being dragged through a correction facility unconscious then thrown behind bars from which she stares lugubriously like the twisted sister of the Singing Nun. Various ambidextrous, omnisexual dancers interpret God only knows what in dance while a masked, handcuffed M is beaten and raped while being surrounded by religious paraphernalia. The soundtrack is voiced by Madonna and becomes increasingly unhinged as the film progresses.
At one point a baby’s pram spontaneously combusts as M rasps ‘Burn, baby, burn’. Really? Towards the end of the film Madonna growls ‘If y0u can’t take the heat get out of the kitchen. I’m in the kitchen and the burners are on full blaze’…screaming for a Victoria Wood voiceover to add ‘and those drop scones have been on a lowlight since Friday and they’ll never brown in time for Shona’s wedding’.
She was a wise old bird, Gertrude Stein. Affectations can indeed be dangerous. M has gone on record excusing her use of guns, bombs, tanks, uniforms and prisons as part of her new stage and screen iconography because ‘people kill people not guns’. Well, yes up to a point. But glamourising violence even if to expose the evil that men (and women) do calls to mind an old phrase of Miss Marple’s about gossip: ‘I sometimes think the tale bearer is as bad as than the tale teller’.
Madonna’s film concludes with a dedication to those persecuted for their race, religion, artistic expression (see how she slipped that one in?), gender and sexual preference. This is all admirable but it has to be said that minority groups have arguably never had it so good in the UK at least. It’s the white, middle-class and middle-aged who are more likely to feel besieged and persecuted in this day and age where it is treason to question immigration and homosexuality is the love that never effing well shuts up.
Playing the artistic integrity card as an excuse for wooly thinking is inexcusable. Vivienne Westwood’s fallen down the same hole of late. SecretProjectRevolution rather reminded me of the antics of exotic dancer Maud Allan at the turn of the 20th century. Allan was one of the first to perform Oscar Wilde’s Salomé and introduced her version of the dance of the seven veils. Maud thought she was embodying sexual freedom and women’s emancipation. The men in the audience came to ogle her breasts.
I’m not entirely convinced by freedom of expression: particularly now Twitter and Facebook have shown how ugly human beings can become when they’re given license to reveal their true colours. Madonna advocates ‘not giving a damn what people say…not worrying about disapproval’. Well, to that one can’t agree. Only a fool or a megalomaniac doesn’t give a damn what other people say about them. As for approval, I think we’re all seeking it on one level or another. The trick is to respect the people whose approval you seek. And as Madonna herself sang, music not politics makes the people come together.