Rats in cages or why I don’t hurt myself with my art anymore
When I was nine years old for some reason I hated school. Pretending to be sick was not very effective as an excuse so I subconsciously came up with the idea of REALLY being sick. Every morning during the Pledge I would run to the trash can and, “with liberty and justice for all” vomit into it for a free ticket to the nurse and often on to my Grandmother’s for fun and popsicles. In time I lost so much weight that I was hospitalized. After many tests were negative the doctor said, “Let’s change his room in school.” It seemed to work. I gained weight and left off the morning vomit.
In one psychological experiment examining fight or flight responses to electric shock, it was found that one rat in a cage would escape when possible. Two rats in one cage with no escape would fight each other. One rat in cage with no way out and no one to fight would turn his fight instincts onto himself, weaken and die. When I worked in the Austin State Hospital in Austin, TX, I saw a lot of rats in a no escape cage who were so drugged they couldn’t fight. I found one patient who drew all day as a way of fighting his demons instead of himself. I became his friend and advocate. I did a lot of reading about mental illness and began to wonder if the individual’s response might be a perfectly sane response to a society gone mad.
When I left there I decided to make art, my escape into the safe cage. I found my fight and flight in learning to paint. In hindsight, I see that my performance art was about that nine year old boy who couldn’t escape and couldn’t fight. My performance ego was used to shocking his body by gorging on mayonnaise or picante sauce and then vomiting it out while singing Close to You. Certainly there were metaphors about living in the most egregiously consumptive society in the history of man and there were statements about masks, disgust and intimacy. But mostly it was about trying to help that nine year old boy to not hurt himself and speak up and become an emotionally mature adult.
The poor kid was never the same after returning to the Gulag Elementary. He knew he was back in the cage and his school pictures show the loss of joy and innocence all over his face. From then on I became a nonconformist, knowing that it was my flight vehicle from the cage. Out of this realization, sensitivity and intelligence, comes my art ? existing where there are no cages. I feel so blessed to believe myself to be free. If trapped alone, I’ll run. If trapped with anyone else, I’ll fight.