“For people like me, solitude is a victory.” – Karl Lagerfeld
Let’s talk marginality. It is a surprise, even to me, that I begin with that quote by Karl Lagerfeld. I do it reluctantly. Perhaps that is on me for having a preconceived notion of what a marginalized artist looks like, but Karl Lagerfeld just doesn’t match that conception. On the other hand, the quote itself captures the sentiment that I want to convey, the feeling of being outside, of disconnectedness, of the ability to conjure a positive outcome within a potentially negative space. These are the qualities required by those who find alternative paths toward accomplishing creative goals.
What is marginalization really about? Most dictionaries tell us that marginalization is a forced, and enforced, situation; that it is in various ways societal. My first query, in relation to that, is whether it is also possible for marginalization to be a choice, that is to be selected. For example, suppose I am born into a marginalized class. I am educated in an Ivy League institution, and then choose to continue my path back within that, or another, marginalized situation. Is that marginalized? Or is that hybrid marginalized? Or is it bringing homogenization to the margin?
Suppose I am born into the establishment but have personal feelings of disenfranchisement and ultimately choose to work outside of the system I was born into. Am I marginalized?
To step ahead for just a second, what is important to me and what I am ultimately trying to reach and understand here, and I am going to give this objective away to you up front, is how the work, say research work or artistic work, of a person working within the establishment, and the work of a person working in the margins, compares in terms of purpose, effect, and benefit to society. Put another away, can we generalize that people working within the establishment tend to do work that benefits and prolongs the status quo, and that people working in the margins do work that tends to alter that status?
Just to blow a theatrical fog onto that already murky statement, I attended the Voice Awards presented by the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles over this weekend. One of these awards was given to Focus Features, the film company that produced such projects as Brokeback Mountain and The Danish Girl. Upon accepting the award, the CEO of Focus stepped out to state in no uncertain terms that Focus’s focal point is on the bottom line. What he didn’t seem to say clearly, but what I did take from that message, was that Focus had discovered that poignant stories about marginal characters had at least an equal, if not larger, popular draw than similar stories about mainstream characters. At the very least, they are moneymakers.
Within the article, The Institutional Margins of Aesthetics: A Study Proposal by Jozef Kovalcik and Max Ryynanen, are included the phrases: “Working in the margins.” and “Whether there are benefits in working in the margins.” Inherent in these statements are two assumptions, one, that creative people in the margins might actually be “insiders within their own milieu,” and two, that there might be “benefits” to being there.
First, it seems taken for granted that the margin is a place. It is a mental space, really a psychological neighborhood, for some a ghetto. One dwells there, creates an environment in which life, work, and social interaction has a specific meaning. It is this particular meaning which causes it to differ from establishment life. Everything about this meaning is in reaction to how others go about every day. It is a parallel life. Walking down the street is the same. Visuals are the same. Physical objects are the same. But how all these things are perceived is different. I just want to throw in that perhaps it is the gaze that is also different. But, basically, the interaction, how one who feels comfortable with how established society interacts with their environment, is internally different than one who feels unaccepted by that same environment – or who has chosen to dis-accept it.
It is this decision, or reaction, that is the space of margin. For some this space, this universe that is parallel to the assembly, that one walks while seeing things that are described by others in ways that one considers ludicrous, that one cannot believe he and the other are looking in the same direction, that they are talking about the same object, or the same person, as if that margin line – what if one were to straddle that line? Is that schizophrenia? – As if that line was the Berlin wall or the Wall of China. Was that Walter Benjamin, who Kolvalcik and Ryynanen perceive as a marginal character, walking in the arcades of Paris? Was he trying to describe the margin? Or find his way out?
But do you remember? Do you remember when Carlos Casteneda found Don Juan in Mexico City? (Yes, you found me out. I am just brazen and naïve enough to quote Castaneda.) In a brown pinstriped business suit? What did he say? Something about being able to co-exist in separate worlds? The antonym of margin is center. So it follows that to live in the establishment is to be centered, while on the margin, I suppose, is on the edge? It feels like a defensive position, like watching ones own back, like having to explain oneself, while also believing in what one is doing. This is the state of non-acceptance.
And yet, many creative souls living in Marginalia, while despairing the lack of community, do not have the capacity for accepting it. This situation parallels the lottery winner who, having no experience with how to live with tons of bucks, is soon without them again. Creativity is their community. Silence is their cerebral milieu. The lottery is their utopia and yet their cesspool. And how do they attain this cesspool? By critiquing it. By trying to create a better cesspool.
And for just a moment, let’s go back to that Art PhD – and art research – and Cezanne. What do they think Cezanne was doing? And what were Picasso and Braque doing? What was Paul Klee doing? And Mondrian? Ana Mendieta? If not research.
Society, the center, at some point recognizes that, yes, this creative, living in the wilds of Marginalia, has come up with some interesting takes that could be capitalized. Let’s incorporate it into Centralia. And so these establishments take this Marginalia creative into Centralia, give her/him some capital, put him/her (lottery winner?) into the creative equivalent of a brown pinstripe business suit, and perhaps society itself becomes nudged ever so much toward a larger center, and maybe the margin, the enforced margin, becomes that much less of a space.