What's the use of the truth if you can't tell a lie sometimes (Snoop Doggy Dog)

Christine Y Kim & Mark Bradford

 

photo credits // Mark Bradford, Wilard Brown and Prometheus

courtesy // Brent Sikkema Gallery, New York

 

It's tricky to rock a rhyme, to rock a rhyme that's right on time
By Christine Y. Kim

I recently read a book by Lewis Hyde entitled Trickster Makes this World (1998). It is a critical text in which Hyde pinpoints the 'trickster' as a socio-cultural phenomenon, an outcome of natural law and social instinct. He puts forward the idea that artistic impulse pertains to a sort of appetite. “Trickster starts out hungry,” Hyde conjectures, “but before long he is the master of the kind of creative deception that, according to a long tradition, is a prerequisite of art." In other words, no matter how evolved or complex our culture, where social conventions exist, the artist-trickster emerges. Mark Bradford's alter-ego trickster derives from a complex amalgam of Greek mythology, slavery, self-portraiture, pornography and desire. His take on Dionysian trickster Prometheus employs conceptual strategies that both support and surpass Hyde's theory, and ultimately reshapes a wider playing field for the polemics of art and identity.

Amongst Hyde's many examples of historic tricksters is Frederick Douglass who developed two points of trickery in nineteenth century. The first was through literacy. Taught the alphabet by his slave master's relative in Maryland in 1826, he schooled himself in secret, “stealing” literacy and speech from the whites. “The absence and presence of writing,” explains historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “of a collective black voice that could in some sense be overheard, were drawn upon by European philosophers to deprive African slaves of their humanity.” In other words, Douglass effectively hi-jacked the mode of oppression that perpetuated slavery, and turned it into his own tool, or art, collapsing the pattern. His second methodology was more oblique. During the Christmas holidays, masters often distributed liquor to their slaves, offering them an illusion of the authentic taste of freedom, an invitation to a Promethean plot. Douglass, in 1836, after a second year in enjoyment of liquor, refused the bottle. He saw its acceptance as “playing into the master's inexorable logic: a slave craves applejack, his boozing shames him, and thus his station in life is part of nature.” Douglass tricked the master's strategy through abstinence and asceticism.

Hyde compares Douglass and his latter methodology to two tricksters of Greek mythology, Hermes and Prometheus, and their dilemmas with appetite. While Hermes, Hyde's victor, denies his own hunger, “and thus terrestrial for heavenly feeding,” Prometheus fails because “forever after, his heirs get to eat meat, but they are, for that, 'mere bellies,' recurrently hungry and confined to a lower sphere.” While Prometheus succeeds in creating superiority and sustenance for mortals, he is deemed unethical and is punished for tricking the gods. (1) According to Hyde, ethics and integrity are central to the trickster's modus operandus.

However, this supposition raises some troubling questions:


· If Douglass had enjoyed another drunken holiday, would his art have failed? Would he not be a trickster?


· Or, is Hyde's preference for Hermes' legacy of eternal heavenly feeding grounded in an oppressive hegemony?


· In the twenty-first century, must the artist-subject choose ethics over appetite, id over ego, the collective over the individual?


· Must African-Americans and other marginalized people consider the past, present and future of their peoples before money, sex and booze, power… and freedom?


· Have we not outgrown the binaries of morality based on enlightened thought?

Mark Bradford wants to have his cake and eat it too. In this ongoing series of photographic images, he appropriates not Hermes but Prometheus. Tall, dark and handsome, Bradford inserts himself as subject in post-Freudian vignettes that offer dynamic alternatives to Hyde's assumptions. Curator Teka Selman describes Mark Bradford's Prometheus portfolio as “a cornucopia of cultural artifacts that explore the fabric of 'authentic' black subjectivity through images that engage Afrocentrism, gender conceptions, and notions of wealth and power.” On the surface, the viewer is a voyeur of the artist's personal sketches, travel snapshots and homoerotic portraits. These images might be read as his favorite hair advertisements from the 1970s, drugstore polaroids with his high school girlfriend, tongue-in-cheek snapshots, or pages ripped out of a cheap magazine. But in his tricky way, Bradford himself is the voyeur who manipulates the viewer. He uses his own literacy of the viewer's visual and social vocabulary to feed them bones while he eats meat. Not only is the viewer clueless, his/her sweat and saliva are oil and fuel for the art.

The premise of Prometheus derives from myth and identity construction, meaning “Prometheus is a trickster whose propositions are purely speculative within the panorama of postmodern.” In these photographs, Bradford positions myth inside myth, making it unclear whether he is offering genuine sentiments or feeding the viewer expressions of parody. And so Prometheus strikes again… and again. As he postures to appropriate the phenomenological features of contemporary black culture, he reveals the elusive nature of their source. Bradford makes it clear that trickery is infinitely more delectable when it's quid pro quo, of course on his terms.

 

(1) In Greek mythology, Prometheus and Epimetheus, sons of Titus, were given the task of creation. To make humans superior to animals, Prometheus stole fire from the sun and gave it to humans. Then he tricked the gods by leading them to choose animal bones over meat, which he saved for mortals. Zeus then punished Prometheus by chaining him to a rock opn the island of Caucasus, where he was preyed upon by and eagle. Prometheus was finally freed by the hero Hercules who slew the eagle.