“I love you, and because I love you, I would sooner have you hate me for telling you the truth than adore me for telling you lies.”
If an interesting monster can’t have an interesting hairdo I don’t know what this world is coming to.
Both of the above quotes, Aretino’s cautionary and pointed, Bug’s filled with a bit more levity, but still just as pointed, can apply with equal vigor to my friend Cintra Wilson. Behold, Dagnabit, the voice of one crying in the mother******* WILDderness. Cintra truly is a child of Aretino, one of the first writers’s to put a definitive stamp upon the territory of satire. When there is something to say worth saying about some façade obstructing the flow of the clean water of truth, or some big freaking beam sticking out of an eye, hers or someone else’, the wall will come tumbling down, by her hand and at her command. Girlfriend has a truth-tellin style. But despite that she has a love of the weird, of spontaneously bold individualism, of little saccharine transcendent nuggets that make one go…. really? For all her big brain and incisive wit, this is a woman that will admit to liking Tevin Campbell for God’s sake! How scary can she be? Pretty fucking scary according to some, but I find her to be well, just a little bit fabulous.
It would be easy to interpret Cintra’s tenacious, moralist need to point out the lurking truth as being the result of some sort of crusading propensity, but I see it as anything but. It’s really kind of simple I think. It’s just too damn difficult and counter-productive to choose to stumble around in the dark. That being said, I don’t think she is above or beyond the occasional and ill-aimed wack at immovable objects in the light either.
I came across Cintra’s work just recently, in March of this year actually, when a reader of my blog turned me on to her book A Massive Swelling, Celebrity Reexamined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease and Other Cultural Revelations. I promptly read it in an evening. Her examination of the fatuous nature of fame was timely for me, as it has been one of the areas that I am probing artists about in the interviews and profiles I have been doing for A Necessary Angel. I was intrigued as much by the plethora of anecdotes chronicling unimaginably putrid acts of ego perpetrated by some of our brightest “stars” as I was by her lucid, and to my view, spiritually on-point assessment of what the entropic process of seeking fame does to a person, not to mention to society at large and the idea of culture. Wilson’s other books include a work of fiction called Colors Insulting To Nature, that features a heroine aptly named Liza Normal, and her most recent work Caligula for President. All of her work is satirical and in a modernist way, prophetic. Cintra does not take on the mantle of self-obliteration and denial that is part of the mythos of the prophet, regardless of whether the seed of interpretation is Christian, Muslim, Buddhist or otherwise. She reserves the right to stand in the middle of the culture, to sample its wares, feed on the edge of its excesses, carefully avoiding hypocrisy, always observing the right to call bullshit. She’s extremely effective at this. One attribute that enables her to build upon this effectiveness is that she seems to truly not give a shit about being judged, or if she does, is able to bear or ignore it.
It recently struck me that I had read her scathing denunciation of Sarah Palin in Salon in 2008 before I knew who she (Wilson) was. From her first paragraph:
I confess it was pretty riveting when John McCain trotted out Sarah Palin for the first time. Like many people I thought “Damn, a hyperconservative, fuckable, type A, antiabortion, Christian Stepford wife in a ‘sexy librarian’ costume—as a vice president? That’s a brilliant stroke of horrifyingly cynical pandering to the Christian Right. Karl Rove must be behind it.
Now this piece drew all kinds of ire from the right, and a little bit of stupidity from the left, in the form of the opinion that there are “so few women in potential positions of power” that we should basically ignore galactic levels of incompetence on principal….but that’s another story altogether. What slapped me silly about the Palin piece was the fact that it was so utterly and completely true. Palin was obviously a completely insidious neo-con calculation. The perfect blending of the potentially prurient and the obviously wholesome. The fuckability factor is undeniable, the sexy librarian thing painfully obvious. There is porn in them thar Alaskan hills. The cynicism of the packaging is such that the actual pornographic parody reads more like a conceptual tie-in than parody….and Wilson was keen to this dynamic and willing to point it out immediately. That’s not simply a satirical exercise for the sake of being clever. That’s prophetic energy aimed at the revelation of hypocrisy of a particularly repellent type.
So, after completing “A Massive Swelling” I decided that we must talk. I sent an e-mail through to her blog, and she responded rather quickly, stating that she was amenable to some discussion about art, politics, fame, whatever. I knew that this was a conversation that was going to best be had in person, and arranged for us to meet during a trip I took to NYC at the end of April.
We arranged to meet, Cintra, my wife Lisa and I, at a comfortable and semi-noisy Tribeca café that had amazing coffee, and a monstrously handsome barrista, the kind of person that possesses the type of beauty that makes you understand in a moment that we are all potentially bisexual. I think he made me find my .0008%.
When Cintra arrived by car from Brooklyn, I was keenly aware of her considerable kinesis. Thin, fit, blond bright-eyed Kinesis…. The direction of the response is certainly not controlled by the direction or intensity of the stimulus. This is a person whose mind, body, eyes, and senses are on the move, keenly tied in to what is going on around them, taking in their surroundings in colossal gulps. Basically, Cintra is a sensorial multi-tasker, but you never feel ignored, cause well, you’re not being ignored. Dealing with both my and Cintra’s knee-jerk and barely controllable verbosity made me respect my lovely wife even more. Lisa has a great ability to morph herself to any situation she finds herself in. She just let us rock and roll.
We did not have to make small talk. There was no nervous banter or ill-timed starts and re-starts. She is a physical talker, alternately leaning in to make a point, hands, eyebrows and fingers working as extensions of punctuation. I felt as if I was talking with someone I have known my whole life, which can be good or bad when you are doing an interview. Good because you can get to some good shit you never would have thought of in a constructed way, bad because you can go all over the map feeling you were brilliant, and come away with nothing. I think our conversation fit the former category. Wilson describes herself as “a maladjusted kid from Marin County” that exhibited in spades what would be seen today as ADHD. She heard over and over from the adults in her life that she was not “living up to her potential”. This, to no surprise came to be a self-fullfilling prophecy that lead to a series of legal misadventures ending with a stint in juvenile hall (Juvee is the name of one of her first plays). The artist in her was analyzing these experiences, creating a cautionary tale feedback loop that she could continue to use. And as always there was the critique. She would be as hard on herself as she could be on others. The internal maloika constantly working, working….
In talking about her formative years, and strange jobs that she has had, we spoke of her stint as a “Yagermeister Shot Nurse”:
“The weirdest gig I ever had was as a “Yagermeister shot nurse” where I dressed up in this bondage outfit, had a reclining dentist chair and a canister of yager which I would shotgun down the throats of people for ridiculously inflated prices..there is only so much a throat can handle” “This happened at a bar I worked at…”
So there were not a bunch of “normal” gigs while she was at SF State, writing plays, and taking part in some “shamanistic explorations” in the Haight Ashbury… there was a type of falling into a life it seems, a process of following the muse and opportunity, carefully and shrewdly, yes, but most of all faithfully. This lead to some creative and subversive creations, like the character Winter Steele that she created and voiced for MTV’s Liquid Television. I don’t think to ask her how she came to capture these opportunities, the business side of things, because it was a time (late 80’s, early 90s) where there was still a little bandwidth for creating artistic business opportunities. Every potential pathway to artistic creativity and possible success was not blocked, like it is now, like a bloody rag in the bloated nose of every creative industry.
Our conversation morphs between the territories of interview and interested exchange. I ask Cintra about writing for Salon, and we discuss the writing business in general, she noting that the disintegration of the business of writing/publishing has mirrored that of the other arts. She notes that she get’s offered 1/10th the amount to write some articles or features than she would have received 10 years ago. It creates a situation where it is often impossible to take the gigs without losing money. I commiserate.
Cintra Wilson is a culture critic. It is an apt term to encapsulate the personal and professional Cintra. It is what she does, commercially and just moment by moment. That being said, we did have the inevitable discussion about Tiger Woods. I ask Cintra what she thought of the Nike Ad, that in my opinion amounted to a public lynching for his errant behavior. A lynching with his complicity, yes, but a cyberlynching nonetheless. She says she has not seen it, but when I describe it to her she says:
That(seeing the ad) would have been deeply disturbing to me….I think that this came not just from Nike, but from Tiger….can I just be totally frank here? I have dated a number of black men, and I have always found that deep down, deep down , no matter how much school, no matter how much assimilation, no matter how much success, there is this gnawing kernel of guilt that comes from being fucking detested for hundreds of years.That has always pained me terribly…”Tiger’s situation is a bit more weird though, because of Obama. Suddenly he and Tiger are “the master race “suddenly the coolest guys in the world are these guys who are half-black mostly black identified….I do feel like he felt a disproportionate need to publically atone like a Japanese business man….
When she said this my immediate response was to launch into a posture of denial (internally, because I did not engage her on this issue at the time), because I had always associated that kernel with anger, not guilt, guilt over what? But guilt can become a deep psychological wound that is experienced as effect and not as intention…you don’t feel guilty for, you feel guilty because. Because you have been told, verbally, and by the machinations of society that you are guilty…..of being black. So Tiger was not just guilty of errant and irresponsible dick swinging, it was errant and irresponsible black dick swinging. Another animal altogether.
Cintra notes that Tiger went and found the synthesis of white femaledom to marry, the whitest woman possible. A tie-in to the guilt maybe?
After Tiger, we discuss her take on the Tea-Party Movement:
The tea party movement is like when Brittney Spears shaves her head and defecates in a taxi-cab, and like vomits on Paris Hilton, then like, runs around and calls herself the anti-Christ…you know what I mean? It’s all just so disgraceful that it is hard to see it as anything other than: wow, these people are the most filthy gnorant nazi’s in America… I feel like we only pay attention to them because they are so aggressively ass-out. I can’t take them seriously as a political movement.
“ It all comes down to what will attract them press. There is no such thing as positive attention anymore.” “If you kill and eat the orphans you get press. They have harnessed the ability to acquire fame, and fame is about quantities of attention, not quality.”
The disgust she has for the self-righteousness of entities like The Tea Party Movement is palpable. It’s the blatant dishonesty and need to control that disgusts her, even more than the moral inconsistency, for which in certain circumstances, she has a great deal of grace. We had discussed Chogyam Trungpa earlier, the controversial guru who was the founder of both Naropa and Vajradhatu Universities. He was seemingly morally inconsistent, but it did not stretch outside the bounds of honesty, agreements he had made concerning his voracious sexual and sensory appetites. He did not hide his intentions behind psycho-emotional projectiles aimed with the intent to control others. The prophetess comes out with claws extended, fending off all attempts of control, especially by liars.
Wilson is working on a new book about what she calls “Fashion Determinism”, about how what we wear is so closely aligned with our political environments and destiny. The Critical Shopper columns she has been doing for the New York Times have served as a bit of a research pad for this project. While we are talking about this, a thin, flamboyantly dressed young black man comes in the café, dressed in an extremely individualistic manner, in a way that is impossible to ignore. Fashion is clearly art and communication with him. Cintra addresses the young man, saying that he will definitely be in the book, as he is a perfect example of fashion determinism. Wilson notes that “there is a really rich and unfinished language” regarding the geopolitical and sociological implications of fashion, and that “regional political economies dictate our fashion sense, which in turn dictates our future”. While she is saying this I can almost see the neurons glowing, the synapses firing off, steeling that big brain to spew forth another big glob of imminently original thought.
We talk a little bit about the seeming contradiction of the culture critic/prophetess taking the occasional personal shopper job, which she does every blue moon, and she says “if some dude wants to pay me to take him shopping for shirts every now and then, I don’t mind”. This is a completely different thing than taking writing work that in no way shape or form resonates with her. I did not ask why. I can only venture a guess that the shirt buying experience is a potentially very human one…you never know what you will find with any given person, and Cintra, at the core of it, righteous prophetess aside, likes humans. Writing a shit article is simply indentured servitude in a moment. No humanity whatsoever involved.
We take our conversation to another café that actually has food and not just pastries, as Lisa and I are hungry, and we talk for another 25 minutes or so about the publishing industry, the music industry, and artistic inspiration. Our time is running out as she has to make a 2:00 Flamenco class. It keeps her dopamine receptors happy, body fit, mind in a pleasant state of tired when need be. We say our goodbyes with still so much to talk about. There are people that you meet in this life that you are so bloody glad are here, drawing air, raging against the dying of the light, wearing the mantle of prophetess provocateur, beautiful monsters with interesting hairdos…. Cintra Wilson is one of those people, and I’m glad she is my friend.