Content Warning: This week’s piece is broadly about trauma.
Last week, I got chills in my art history class.
I don’t have a lot of patience for American propaganda through the heroism of “great” white men. Based on the readings for Tuesday’s class, this was exactly what Jackson Pollock was made out to be. Regardless of his personal intentions, his image and his art were used for the much bigger external goal of creating an American hero. He embodied the classic image: dark, brooding, mysterious and a man of few words. Critics described him flinging paint onto the canvas in fits of rage– violent and aggressive. He was exactly the kind of anti-establishment hero that your everyday white man wants to look up to. At least, that’s how it seemed.
I never walk about after dark, it’s my point of view.
My dad first played me Grimes when I was a kid. Maybe he thought it was playful, funky and fun enough that someone young would be able to enjoy it even if I couldn’t understand it. It was his way of making sure I had a proper music education and didn’t just listen to pop music. And I do have fond, fuzzy memories of dancing and throwing my hair back and forth to “Oblivion” in my childhood bedroom. I’m not sure if he knew, at the time, what she was writing about.
When I found out years later, I was shocked. I won’t get into it here, but if you’re curious, before you go and research it on your own, I want to put another trigger warning here: it isn’t light stuff. The surface level “vibes” of the song are so light and pop-y that you hardly read into the lyrics, if you understand her enunciation at all. It’s a clever way to write a song about trauma. The feeling is there, undergirding everything like a bassline that touches your bones even if it doesn’t reach your mind. The minute you start to prod at it, however, something deeper begins to surface.
Coming up behind you, always coming and you’d never have a clue.
In class, I couldn’t understand this emphasis on anger and violence in Pollock’s work. Perhaps it was my upbringing, but anger is such a difficult emotion for me to get a hold of. I understand the need to let out negativity. As someone who writes a weekly column about goosebumps, I am no stranger to the idea of catharsis. But I couldn’t get on board with this hyper-masculine fixation on anger and violence as heroic. How is that productive? Shouldn’t we be looking for a hero who encourages young men and boys to express their emotions in other ways?
The deeper we prodded at it in our discussion, we started to approach the context of Pollock’s work. He was making art in the ‘50s, after World War II. Someone in the class said, well, you have to brand it as heroism so it can’t be interpreted as anything else. And then it clicked. We as a country were traumatized. We uplifted the violence of Pollock’s paintings as justification for the violence of war, as a way of coping with things we couldn’t believe we had done.
It’s hard to understand, ‘Cause when you’re running by yourself it’s hard to find someone to hold your hand.
My professor got quiet when I said this. She walked across the classroom and said we are traumatized, now, living through a global pandemic. And it hit so close to home.
I may not agree with this idea of coping with trauma through continued manifestations of violence, even if the violence of body-painting is less dangerous than the violence of war. Maybe not everyone understands the things Grimes is writing about in her songs. But I know that we are all coping with different traumas in a lot of different ways. Grimes and Pollock both made art. A lot of my generation, our generation, is coping through the internet. Making memes about memes about memes about a pandemic that doesn’t fail to reach every corner of our lives. That’s how we separate ourselves, remove ourselves from the fact that this, our whole reality right now, is traumatic. But if we lived with that reality every day, it’d be unbearable.
Today, I’m coping by writing and talking about trauma in my classes. Today, I hope you find something cathartic to do, something to let that breath out that you’ve been holding, to lift that weight from your shoulders. Keep your chin above water, and I’ll see you, here, the next time you have a dark night.