If it seemed like something was missing at the 2018 Grammy awards, it may because Lorde did not perform. She was nominated for Album of the Year for her sophomore record Melodrama, but reportedly was not invited to perform solo for the broadcast — unlike the other four male nominees (Kendrick Lamar, Bruno Mars, Jay-Z, and Childish Gambino). It’s an oversight that is as puzzling as it is sexist — Lorde is hugely popular, a dynamic performer, and in era when Grammy ratings are at an all-time low, the Recording Industry could use every bit of star power it can muster to revive its sluggish flagship enterprise.
Lorde, a Scorpio, did not let the slight go unnoticed. Nor should she — in the midst of the #MeToo movement, silence in order to not upset the status quo is exactly what caused untoward behavior to poison our culture in the first place. And Lorde spoke out with a patch sewn onto the back of her bright red Valentino gown, carrying the words of feminist artist Jenny Holzer.
“Rejoice! Our times are intolerable. Take courage, for the worst is a harbinger of the best. Only dire circumstance can precipitate the overthrow of oppressors. The old & corrupt must be laid to waste before the just can triumph. Contradiction will be heightened. The reckoning will be hastened by the staging of seed disturbances. The apocalypse will blossom,” reads the text.
It’s an excerpt from a longer piece by Holzer. The full poem is part of Holzer’s “Inflammatory Essays” series, which she began in earnest in the 1970s as an art student at the Whitney Museum in New York City. Each of the essays number at exactly 100 italicized, all-caps words with 30 lines of text. With her essays, Holzer explored themes like unchecked contemporary capitalism (a hot topic in President Ronald Reagan’s America), sexism, violence against women, power structures, and interpersonal communication. They are meant to be screaming, ferocious sermons, striking a tone somewhere between Christian fundamentalist hellfire, and a paranoid dictator whipping up his followers into a frenzy.
Holzer printed out the Inflammatory Essays onto square pieces of paper, which she wheatpasted onto public walls all over New York City. Public discourse was, and remains, an instrumental part of Holzer’s art; she seeks to give the public free, unmitigated access to her work, bound only by the imagination of the passersby, using our self-protective individualism against us.
The essay from which Lorde’s patch is excerpted, like all of Holzer’s Inflammatory Essays, is not titled — each of them exist simultaneously as a stand-alone screed and part of the greater collection of over 100 works, according to HuffPost’s profile of art collector and gallerist Todd Alden.
That was the beginning to Holzer’s foray into text-based art. With fame came greater access to materials, and soon her Inflammatory Essays became distilled into one-line “Truisms,” like “Abuse of power comes as no surprise” and “Raise boys and girls the same way.”
This allowed her work to be displayed conceptually in more public places. She used a variety of implements to place her words squarely into pedestrian view: protections, billboards, posters, marquee signs. “Protect me from what I want” reads a massive LED sign above the peep clubs of Times Square in 1982. Rock band Nirvana posed under one of Holzer’s theater marquee installations; the words “Men don’t protect you anymore” looms over the all-male band.
Her 21st-century artwork utilizes lighting tubes and protections to display text written by others. No longer limited to her own writing, she chooses quotes for their resonant value that align with her firebrand feminist approach. A 2015 installation in New York broadcast quotes onto the glass conservatory at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. Holzer’s work continues to stop us in our tracks, forces to examine to the screeching words, and consider how power imbalances are present in our own lives. It’s a lesson that Lorde that took to heart, and wanted the Recording Academy — and all of us — to pay attention to. It couldn’t be more prescient in these times.
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