I was ten when Charlotte Moorman passed away, and can safely say her death did not even register upon my world. Five years later, however, when a misguided attempt to join the school orchestra (long story, and it involves a boy) saw me pointed in the direction of the cello, searches through both the library and the still-nascent internet introduced me to the woman who not only made the instrument seem fascinating, she also pointed out to me the error of my lovesick ways.
In order to successfully play any instrument, you need to approach it for all the right reasons. Mine were completely wrong. It was the rest of Moorman’s life and career--the reasons themselves--that inspired me and, I have since learned through further reading and researching, a lot of other women, too.
The bare facts. Born in Little Rock AR in 1933, Madeleine Charlotte Moorman was a natural musician. She took up cello at age ten, took her BA in music at Centenary College, Shreveport; her MA at the University of Texas; an her post-graduate studies at Julliard. A career in the concert hall surely beckoned, and she started out there as well. But by the early 1960s, she had turned her back on all such convention, as she first discovered and then came to dominate the New York avant-garde scene.
And her moment of discovery? Her Damascene conversion? The day she loudly announced she was bored with the Kabalevsky cello piece she was rehearsing, and somebody suggested she instead try a piece by John Cage, "26 Minutes, 1.499 Seconds for a String Player.” It, too, was a cello piece. But it also involved preparing and eating mushrooms.
In 1963, Charlotte organized the city’s first Avant Garde Festival - an event that ran annually until 1979, and did so with the near-unanimous support of city officials who could not help but be charmed by the beautiful southern lady who would sit deferentially in their offices, explaining her plans and ambitions in language guaranteed to make them feel a whole lot less than gentlemanly if they ever raised an objection. And not even her arrest and conviction for indecent exposure at an art event in February 1967 could dent her compelling mystique in their eyes.
For Moorman was not simply a gifted cellist. She was also - in the parlance of modern tabloids and celebrity gossip - the Naked Cellist.
Art, whether it be painting, music, sculpture, literature, photography, whatever, is not only a matter of creation. It is also concerned with interpretation - the artist’s and the audience’s. A superficial examination of erotica, the field (and yes, the art) in which I am most comfortable, would insist that the sex act is the focus. I would argue that it is the sensations and the emotions that lie behind the sex act that matter, and that the bodies and their actions are simply the canvas upon which those less tangible aspects are painted.
I learned this from Charlotte Moorman, reading accounts of (and, once YouTube arrived, watching) the performances for which she received that epithet, and asking myself what she was saying. That the naked female body is beautiful, even when it has two television monitors strapped to the breasts, feeding back the audience’s own faces to the crowd? Or that any shared experience, once divorced from its most overt (and, in this instance, shocking) appeal, possesses an intimacy that transcends reality several times over, to become a reality on its own unique terms?
Critics of Charlotte’s best-known performances point out that many of them were actually the creation of men - the South Korean avant-gardist Nam June Paik designed both the Opera Sextronique, for which she received a suspended sentence in the 1967 bust, and the aforementioned TV Bra for Living Sculpture; the American Jim McWilliams, who conceived Sky Kiss, in which a naked Moorman was raised heavenwards on helium-filled weather balloons outside Central Park in 1969, and Ice Cello, which she performed in London three years later, naked on stage, silently playing a slowly melting cello made of ice.
To those critics (and not only the disapproving ones), the artists were the creators, and Moorman was simply the raw material upon which they draped their fantasies. And let us be honest here, and admit that McWilliams’ pieces in particular could indeed fade into the realm of sexual fantasy.
Moorman was no stooge, however. It was her belief in the vision of her collaborators, her willingness not simply to act out their imagery but to put so much of her own self into it, that was the point of the performance. Seeing photographs of the ice cello act, our initial reaction is of pity. How cold she must have been, a great slab of ice pressed against her bare skin, the flakes that would break away and adhere to her warmth, then slowly, softly, commence their own gentle dribble into drizzle, and the audience shuffling restlessly as hour upon hour passed and the cello resolutely refused to dissolve.
What is going through her mind in this photographs? How could she remain so calm, so preternaturally serene and beautiful? Bluntly - what was she getting out of this display?
Ask yourself that same question the next time you turn your attention to an art project, and, let’s say somebody is walking past your home, and glances in at the window to see you painting, drawing, scrapbooking, knitting, writing, strumming a guitar, whatever.
What they see as they pass is not what you are feeling as they pass by, and it doesn’t matter who wrote the pop song you are trying to play, who crafted the landscape you are trying to paint, who designed the pattern you are trying to needlepoint. You are the interpreter, you are the creator. And it doesn’t matter how many, or indeed if any, people actually appreciate the end result. The point of art is not to impress. It is to fulfill.
I handed the cello back to the music teacher. I was not a budding Charlotte Moorman (although I did eventually wind up at the same University as her), and the boy wasn’t really that cute, either. I abandoned music and returned to my first love, writing. Then I abandoned dreams of writing the Great American Novel, and strove for the Great American Blowjob Story instead. Recently, a reader e-mailed and asked why the heroines of my stories rarely let the guy stick his dick in any other hole. I remembered Charlotte and Kabalevsky. Because I’d rather eat mushrooms, I replied.
I still watch Charlotte’s performances on YouTube, and I dropped $100 on a box set of her music - primarily for the book that accompanied it, I admit. And when I write, although I have no idea whatsoever what she would personally make of my chosen art form, I still do offer a silent thank you to a woman who showed me that it doesn’t matter what people think. It is what is thought by the people who matter.
And who might they be? The mirror will show you the first of them.
Charlotte died on November 8 1991. She had been diagnosed with breast cancer in 1979, undergoing a mastectomy even as she continued to perform through the next decade. Several people, towards the end of her life, suggested that spending so much time with television tubes strapped to her chest had sped, and maybe even caused the disease in the first place, and she neither agreed or disagreed.
“I don’t know, they don’t know, but I think it was everything - this, all this, all of this.” And with that, remembered writer and friend Brian Morton, “she curled her body round some imaginary cello, or let the memory of real ones invade her, and for a moment mimed herself in some rapturous mid-movement before clapping her hands over her ears with a moan.”
Charlotte? Thank you.