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The Responsibility of Artists: An Interpretive Analysis of Coco Fusco

By justinandrews

Famed linguist and political theorist Noam Chomsky once wrote that it was the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and expose lies, especially in the context of the lies perpetuated by the dominant politico-economic power structure.  One could argue that a similar responsibility exists for artists:  In their works, artists must not only create art that is set against the backdrop of the current era, but must create art that actively critiques and challenges the status quo.  Artists must ruthlessly expose all that is rotten in society and call upon people to demand a better state of affairs.

Not long ago, I had the opportunity through WACTAC to see Coco Fusco’s radical performance piece, “Observations of Predation in Humans:  A Lecture by Dr. Zira, Animal Psychologist.”  Upon walking into the cinema, I had little clue of what was to come next.  I knew the name of the performer, and I knew that during the show she would be dressed up as Dr. Zira from the Planet of the Apes series.  But as to the content of Fusco’s piece, I did not as yet know what to expect.

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Coco Fusco as Dr. Zira, photo from Art21 Magazine


The lights dimmed.  After a short introduction video, Dr. Zira came onstage and began her lecture.  If one could summarize the content of Coco Fusco’s performance in a single sentence, it would be thus:  Das Kapital re-interpreted through animal psychology.  While Marx was never mentioned, the parallels were striking:  alpha male and hoarding tendencies for the bourgeoisie and the accumulation of capital, predation for exploitation, beta males and females for the proletariat, and the tension between the alpha and beta males and females for the class struggle.  Dr. Zira exposed the contradictions and inequalities that persist within capitalism and wreak havoc daily on the people of the world.

But Dr. Zira’s lecture was not only a symbolic critique of capitalism, but a strike at another idol maintaining the powers that be:  patriarchy and male dominance.  It is alpha male aggression, coupled with hoarding tendencies, that continues to fuel imperialist wars and growing inequalities.  Women are, of course, excluded from power by these alpha males, for whom they represent nothing but a threat to their control.  A variety of strategies are taken by the alpha males to suppress and marginalize women:  limited job and educational opportunities, lower pay, perpetuating the notion that women are “weak” and less competent than men, placing value only on a woman’s physical appearance, etc.  The result is that the nastiest lot end up taking the world’s resources and running it in a manner that could only be called criminal.


Pyramid of the Capitalist System, Photo from Wikipedia


What is most clever about Fusco’s performance is that all these themes and ideas are explored exclusively through the terms of animal psychology.  Dr. Zira never once mentions “class” “exploitation” “patriarchy” “gender gap.”  Instead, words like alpha and beta, predation, hoarding, and examples taken from the primate world were used to underpin points that Fusco tried to get across.  In doing so, Fusco has created a piece that is remarkably accessible to a wide audience.

In addition, what is remarkable about the piece is that Fusco succeeds in explaining the workings of the capitalist-patriarchal order we find ourselves in in a detached and scientific manner.  There were few, if any, overt moral judgements during her performance.  Instead she opted for exploring the system as it is in a factual, neutral manner.

By creating a piece that is accessible and critiques the present state of affairs, Fusco fulfilled her role as an artist in putting on a performance that spoke the truth and exposed the lies of the power structure.  Fusco did not sugar-coat her message or expound platitudes about how “anyone can make it if they work hard enough.”  Fusco showed her audience the brutal truth about the capitalist-patriarchal system that dominates and sucks the lifeblood of the people of the world today.

And Fusco showed the truth of the situation not by reading passages from Das Kapital or The Feminine Mystique, but through animal psychology, primate society, and imagery from the Planet of the Apes series.  This may seem rather peculiar; after all, if Fusco simply wanted to expose the state of our world, would it not be easier to state it in a literal manner?  Perhaps, but art performances such as this make use of symbolic imagery in order to get the heart of the message across to the widest audience.  Symbolic imagery acted as a translator for the complex ideas that Fusco discussed, and as a result her analysis was easily grasped by those watching the performance.


Smashing Patriarchy, Image from the Susan B. Anthony Institute Blog


After the main performance, there was a Q&A session.  Many members of the audience asked Dr. Zira what she thought was the solution to the problems facing humanity, what was the plan she had in mind.  As much as possible Fusco avoided giving answers to such questions.  Rather than paint for us a portrait of a glorious, future society that we only must figure out how to adjust ourselves to, Fusco offered an analysis of how our current system works.  At one point, in response to a question, Fusco offered the fairly recent example of the overthrow of the authoritarian leader of Burkina Faso as an example of rising up against an alpha male.  The suggestion seems, that rather than waiting for salvation from “expert” intellectuals, politicians, and scientists, the great mass of people themselves, of women and beta males, of oppressed and exploited, must resolve what is to be done.

Yet while the great mass of people must resolve the question, that does not in any way lessen the responsibility of intellectuals and artists to critique and expose the power structure for what it is.  It is a matter of pragmatism:  the vast majority spend their lives working eight hours a day (more with overtime, shift work, or multiple jobs), come home to children they must devote themselves to, and have little, if any, time left all to themselves, let alone engage in analyzing how the power structure works.  The intellectuals and artists, who by profession are able to devote loads of time to understanding how the system works, must create works that expose all that is false and unjust in our society and reveal its true nature.  Artists must be professional agitators who create works that challenge the status quo and inspire the masses to seek an alternative.  That is not to say that artists should pose as “saviors” for the people, but should act as guides and teachers.  Ultimately, the student must figure out how to make use of the lessons learned.

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Dr. Zira explaining altruism, photo from Walker Art Center


Although I previously stated that Fusco’s piece was rather detached, it would be wrong to end by saying that she never offered any moral judgments of the situation.  Dr. Zira highlighted throughout her lecture the importance of altruism and cooperation in the survival of many species’.  Near the end of her lecture, Dr. Zira pointed out that in certain primate species, when fed up with being abused and at the mercy of their alpha males, the females and beta males will rise up, overthrow their masters, and reorganize the social orderings of their groups.  And during Q&A, Dr. Zira reported a scene that had been reported by a group of zoologists:  a group of alpha males of one primate community ate some poisoned food and died shortly after.  Consequently, the female primates took over, taught the new generation not to behave as the prior, and created a more harmonious community.

When keeping in mind the growing inequality between capital and labor, the oppression of women and minorities, Coco Fusco, with her performance, begs the obvious question:  when, too, shall we overthrow our alpha males?  Until that time comes, it remains the responsibility of artists to expose the lies and speak the truth of the power structure, and point a way forward.

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