text by OLIVIER ZAHM and BARBARA T. SMITH
artwork by BARBARA T. SMITH
we asked the american performance artist barbara t. smith, a key protagonist of the feminist movement in southern california since the 1960s, how she sees love and relationships. instead, she chose to annotate the text introducing this issue.
Let’s start with romantic love.
These difficult moments will impact life for some time. But during such times, the narcissistic culture of hype via social media could easily decline, and true love, real love, unconditional love, might very well resurface and be seen again as relevant.
However, this Purple Love Issue won’t try to reaffirm love as a moral or traditional value. On the contrary, it will explore its meaning as well as the possibilities of a different kind of love, of new representations of love between individuals of all genders. So, we ask: what does love mean to you? Okay, you are asking about romantic love between individuals, yes? I have had that experience more than once. Partly, it is driven by eros, physical attraction, but not always. Basically, I have to like the person on some level: it can be intellectual, via humor and personality, or admiration, etc. The outcome is I feel comfortable with him, can be myself, feel appreciated, eager to be with him. I am, obviously, traditionally heterosexual.
What are those feelings? The heart is warm. What kind of love stories or love letters might be interesting to read or look at or photograph? I have a couple of good love letters, if I can find them. How can we even photograph love today? Not possible! But it is everywhere … especially with traveling refugees and poor families. How can artists paint it? Never fear, artists always find a way! What do we know about the brain chemistry that engenders feelings of love? I know very little.
Can love — or new ways of loving — be explored? You mean dispassionately? I suppose so, but it might get to be like second-guessing all the time. What might be a new figure of love, beyond the couple, the duality, that includes freedom, multiplicity, intimacy, secrets, complexity, nonbinary gender, vulnerability? A community, probably small, of very close friends. Maybe a triad… I have friends who have had that arrangement. They were lesbians. We have to get beyond the expectation that people are “supposed” to mate forever and produce offspring… These conditioned cultural “norms” are very confining, and it takes life experience to liberate them.
Can we speak about love without going back to conventional relationships, traditional forms of gender identity, and stereotypes of emotional codependency? How is the recent feminist revolution radically changing our idea of love? From my perspective, the biggest change regarding relationships is that women are no longer expected to fulfil certain tasks (nor are men). Those roles have completely changed. Each partner is expected to have their own mind, and express and live it, however it suits them.
Could the current deconstruction of genders create new models of love and, therefore, demand new representations of it? Sure.
How can we reinvent love in a world that is truly open to nonbinary identities, which rejects the concept of any sort of fixed identity? Well, if love did not imply a sort of social contract, if relationships did not have expectations of something given in return, then all manner of loving expressions and groupings could happen. The inclusion of sexuality in all this is often what causes the problems.
Let’s also consider a broader definition of love — a love that goes beyond relationships, that is greater than romance, that surpasses the simple equation of 1 + 1.
What does love mean to the world — for animals, for plants, for viruses, for the planet? I suppose it means a recognition of the necessary connection between and among all living things, and a reverent regard for all. It would be a stance wherein one has made the unasked-for agreement to take care of everything that is possible in, say, my particular place, to give to and support life.
Love is not simply a magical connection between two people lucky enough to enjoy each other to the fullest. It’s also the world that lovers share, the world they experience together, only more intensely, through love’s delivery from solitude, and its way of extending our very being beyond life’s inexorable finitude. That was a beautiful sentence! A new perspective on love might offer other ways to see the world, to experience differently the things around us, including art.
Art may or may not inspire love, but love could be a source for new forms of art — art that is less commercial, more relational, even utopian or non-dystopian… New kinds of artistic perspectives could emerge or be inspired by it. I think art-making is an act of love. An expression for which one does not expect any return. It is a gift of another point of view, which hopefully alerts someone to new possibilities of seeing or hearing, connecting, etc.
This is not an issue about naive dreams or utopian nostalgia, but a new realism. We want to explore the politics of love. We want to examine love as a social and political resource — a love that might not have seemed relevant before. We wonder if new social considerations of love might be imaginable, a new world with new fantasies. Can love be integrated with ecological issues? You mean that we might act not just for our own survival, but also for a newly awakened realization that we — each one of us — live and die not only because of our own actions, but because of those of all other beings?
With identity politics — or post-identity politics? With artificial intelligence? With science? Well, giving love primacy cannot contradict science, which seems to be the carrier of truth and reality. But the rigor of science might destroy or mute the ineffable nature of love.
Maybe, in love, there resides a fresh perspective, one that can transform the way we see our lives and ourselves. I would hope so, allowing us to see without fear. Most reactive aggression, I think, comes from fear — that something we value is threatened, even our lives. In the ecological sense, our lives are threatened, not immediately but in the future, as are the lives of our children and theirs. Fear is needed, but can be dangerous. We must learn to respond with the highest level of concern, not for our personal lives, but so that all of life may prevail.
What we need now is to counter the things (systems) that deprive people of rights and personal freedoms, such as social distancing and continued isolation and control. I don’t see social distancing and isolation as negative forms of social control. I agree with the need for them, in view of the pandemic. I am quite willing to participate and see it as an act of, shall we say, love?