Do true ec­centrics ex­ist any­more?

Where have all the true ec­centrics gone?

ELLE (Canada) - - News - By Guy Saddy

when some fu­ture scribe tack­les 21st-cen­tury pop cul­ture, the 2010 MTV Video Mu­sic Awards will likely war­rant at least a foot­note. It was a stel­lar, if odd, af­fair. Black Eyed Peas vo­cal­ist showed up in black­face, for rea­sons that re­main a mys­tery, and Tay­lor Swift dropped by and even sang in tune.

But the spot­light was on Lady Gaga. By any rea­son­able mea­sure, she’d earned it, gar­ner­ing a whop­ping 13 nom­i­na­tions, more than any artist in the award show’s his­tory. Yet the rea­son Gaga made such a splash that evening had more to do with her ap­pear­ance than with her per­for­mances: She was wear­ing a dress made of meat.

Oh, the be­guil­ing strange­ness of it all! Yet an­other mem­o­rable mo­ment cre­ated by a woman who topped a 2012 Bri­tish poll as the world’s most ec­cen­tric celebrity. Truth be told, how­ever, Gaga’s en­sem­ble was held to­gether by sewing thread, sinew and a lib­eral salt­ing of chutz­pah: The meat dress was, in fact, a con­cep­tual rip-off of Cana­dian artist Jana Ster­bak’s 1987 sculp­tural piece Van­i­tas: Flesh Dress for an Al­bino Anorec­tic. That was the first de­cep­tion. The se­cond is the po­si­tion­ing of the Gaga brand.

There is some­thing highly con­trived and cal­cu­lated about the for­mer Ste­fani Ger­man­otta, a tal­ented com­poser and vo­cal­ist cursed with, let’s face it, a mun­dane mar­quee top­per. Gaga is, of course, a per­sona—some­thing she puts on for effect, like a dress made of flank steak. In care­fully craft­ing her pub­lic per­sona for max­i­mum h

gain, Gaga is about as wacky and off-the-wall as a cor­po­rate mar­ket­ing plan. Ec­cen­tric? Hardly. Let’s call her “faux­cen­tric”—some­one who, by cre­at­ing an aura of ec­cen­tric­ity, at­tempts to hi­jack the od­dball le­git­i­macy of the born out­sider.

In this re­gard, Gaga is hardly alone. In the woe­fully con­trived Girls, Jessa, Hannah, Marnie and Shoshanna are so pre­dictably off-cen­tre that when, on the rare oc­ca­sion, Lena Dun­ham al­lows some real hu­man in­sight to creep into her scripts, it is in­evitably over­shad­owed by the heavy-handed ar­ti­fice of char­ac­ters that are so card­board you half ex­pect to see “FOLD HERE” inked next to their su­per­cool tat­toos. A scraggy, di­shev­elled and barely co­her­ent Joaquin Phoenix ap­pears on Late Show With David Let­ter­man claim­ing that he has given up act­ing to be­come a hip-hop artist and his stock goes through the roof. (That the whole thing was a hoax, part of a mock­u­men­tary ti­tled I’m Still Here, is hardly be­side the point.)

Mar­i­lyn Manson’s bag of ec­cen­tric tricks bor­rows heav­ily from Alice Cooper (real name: Vin­cent Furnier), a reg­is­tered Repub­li­can whose true pas­sion Where to start with Rus­sell Brand? Even if he does suf­fer from bipo­lar dis­or­der, his shtick is so con­sis­tently over-the-top that one sus­pects its ori­gins owe more to a care­fully ex­e­cuted pub­lic-re­la­tions strategy than to bi­ol­ogy. Even busi­ness is get­ting in on the faux­cen­tric act. Car­di­nal Zin, a Cal­i­for­nia Zin­fan­del, fea­tured the highly styl­ized, ma­ni­a­cally charged work of il­lus­tra­tor (and Hunter S. Thomp­son com­pan­ion) Ralph Stead­man on its la­bel—ap­par­ently, fear, loathing and Las Ve­gas marry well with grilled meats, wild game and duck breast. Faux­centrics, all.

What’s go­ing on? When did artists start play­ing up ec­cen­tric­ity in the quest for cred­i­bil­ity? Since for­ever, ba­sic­ally. The re­cep­tion of Os­car Wilde’s po­ems, sto­ries and plays cer­tainly wasn’t hurt by what were, for Vic­to­rian-era times, his flam­boy­antly unique ways— some­thing Wilde prob­a­bly knew well. The unique and ar­guably bril­liant paint­ings of Sal­vador Dali were ren­dered more so in the pub­lic mind by his out­ra­geous be­hav­iour: From wear­ing a deep-sea-div­ing cos­tume to the open­ing of the 1936 Lon­don In­ter­na­tional Sur­re­al­ist Ex­hi­bi­tion to his ridicu­lous waxed mous­tache, Dali manu­fac­tured a mad­ness that im­bued him with the kind of sta­tus of which other, equally tal­ented (and less no­tice­ably off-the-wall) artists could only dream. Melt­ing clocks? Meh. Melt­ing clocks cre­ated by that crazy guy who ap­peared on The Tonight Show seated on a leather rhin­oceros? I’ll take two, please.

But do we re­ally hold ec­cen­tric—or, for that mat­ter, faux­cen­tric—artists in higher re­gard? A re­cent study in the Euro­pean Jour­nal of So­cial Psychology in­di­cates we do. In the study, par­tic­i­pants who were shown a photo of Van Gogh’s Sun­flow­ers as­sessed its mer­its more pos­i­tively when they were told the artist may have cut off his ear­lobe. But that’s not all. If the par­tic­i­pants al­ready knew about the ear­lobe in­ci­dent, merely re­mind­ing them of it raised the paint­ing’s artis­tic value in their eyes. (When re­spon­dents in the same study were shown a fic­tional artist dressed “ec­cen­tri­cally,” they eval­u­ated the fic­ti­tious art more favourably too.) All of this is part of the “ec­cen­tric­ity effect”—some­thing we are com­plicit in con­struct­ing. It’s tan­gi­ble and mar­ketable. And be­cause it is, it’s in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult to parse the real ec­centrics from the faux.

It wasn’t al­ways this way, of course. Ec­cen­tric was once some­thing you were, not some­thing you de­cided to be. In a clin­i­cal sense, ec­centrics of­ten exhibit signs of a schizo­ty­pal per­son­al­ity—a pro­file char­ac­ter­ized by, among other be­hav­iours, un­usual think­ing pat­terns and per­cep­tions (and a will­ing­ness to ac­cept them). Ac­cord­ing to Dr. Shel­ley Car­son, a Har­vard re­searcher who stud­ies the con­nec­tions be­tween ec­cen­tric­ity and cre­ativ­ity, ec­centrics have fewer cog­ni­tive fil­ter­ing mech­a­nisms than oth­ers; un­able to shut out a bar­rage of in­com­ing stim­uli, they of­ten fo­cus on “their in­ner uni­verse.”

But who are the real ec­centrics today? Can you even be a true ec­cen­tric now? That’s a tough one. The cre­ative ec­cen­tric is spawned and nur­tured in rel­a­tive iso­la­tion: the square peg try­ing to nav­i­gate a world of round holes. h

Today, with the ex­is­tence of niche cy­ber com­mu­ni­ties em­brac­ing al­most any set of de­viant ticks—ev­ery­one from plushie fetishists to peo­ple who en­joy eat­ing nails can hop on­line and feel the love—there are es­sen­tially no more square pegs. Or, more ac­cu­rately, there are a lot of square holes for them to fit in.

With that in mind, there are still some no­table truly ec­cen­tric artists. Björk, the pixie-like bun­dle of quirks whose oeu­vre is moored in de­cid­edly non-com­mer­cial wa­ters, seems to view the world, and her place in it, in a truly unique and off-kil­ter way. Yoko Ono has al­ways been an out­sider—es­pe­cially so in her na­tive Ja­pan, where con­form­ity is prac­ti­cally writ­ten into the na­tional DNA. (That she con­tin­ues in the same vein now, largely out of the pub­lic eye, im­plies that self-in­ter­est has very lit­tle to do with the way she presents.) The late Ed­mon­ton-based artist Man­Woman, whose body was al­most en­tirely cov­ered with swastika tat­toos (his mis­sion in life was to lib­er­ate the an­cient sym­bol from its Nazi as­so­ci­a­tions), was a gen­uinely dif­fer­ent dude. And Comme des Garçons, the Tokyo-based la­bel headed by Rei Kawakubo, has been lift­ing eye­brows at least since 1997, when its “lumps and bumps” col­lec­tion—clothes adorned with dis­tended, bul­bous ap­pendages that al­most seemed or­ganic—de­buted.

For most of us, sep­a­rat­ing the truly ec­cen­tric wheat from the faux­cen­tric chaff is not so easy. There is no test to ad­min­is­ter, no check­list that can con­firm any­one’s bona fides. All we have to go on, re­ally, is a vari­a­tion of U.S. Supreme Court Jus­tice Pot­ter Ste­wart’s fa­mous dic­tate re­gard­ing pornog­ra­phy: I may not be able to de­fine it, but I know it when I see it.

Which brings us back to Lady Gaga. Out­wardly outré, con­sis­tently con­tro­ver­sial, she is some­one who, time and again, has proven to be will­ing to em­brace oddness and in a very pos­i­tive way has given voice to those who feel that they, too, may be the square pegs in our round-hole world. But her ac­tual out­put is hardly un­con­ven­tional; even Dali knew that in or­der to be taken se­ri­ously, the ec­cen­tric artist should prob­a­bly pro­duce ec­cen­tric art. And that cuts to the heart of the prob­lem: When we el­e­vate the faux­centrics and their art by buy­ing into their shtick, we di­lute and de­value the real ec­cen­tric artist—who, at least in the past, has been re­spon­si­ble for so much that has moved us for­ward.

You may dis­agree. In any event, like Jus­tice Ste­wart, I’m call­ing it as I see it: For what it’s worth, I doubt very much, Ms. Gaga, that you were born this way. ■

Lady Gaga has man­u­fac­tured her ec­cen­tric per­sona, while Björk is the real deal.

Faux­centrics: the girls of Girls

Yoko Ono and Comme des Garçons de­signer Rei Kawakubo are a rar­efied pair of gen­uine ec­centrics.

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