Wednesday, November 02, 2005
Is John Zorn Sexist?
CUNY professor Ellie Hisama and composer John Zorn don’t talk to one another anymore. Hisama thinks Zorn has gotten away “scot free” with writing overtly sexist and racist music; Zorn believes he’s simply following the creative path he needs to follow.
Hisama presents her views in “John Zorn and the Postmodern Condition,” an essay recently published in an anthology called “Locating East Asia in Western Art Music” issued by Wesleyan University Press. After summarizing Zorn’s achievements, Hisama describes her own exposure to his music during the 1980s while attending performances at the Knitting Factory and Performing Garage. Then, beginning with his 1987 album “Spillane,” Hisama charts Zorn’s increasingly disturbing use of sexist and racist imagery – both in his music and his album illustrations.
There is the female scream opening “Spillane;” the “Asiophilia” of “Forbidden Fruit” wherein “white men pursue East Asian women as fantastically exoticized, stereotyped objects, models of demure Oriental deportment” (73); the “visual, textual, and sonic manifestations” in the same work that “contribute to an understanding of the song as a narrative in which an Asian woman functions as a soft, infantile, exotic object of male sexual desires” (78). There are the black and white liner photos in “Torture Garden” depicting women performing sadomasochistic acts and undergoing various forms of torture; a color picture depicting “a ponytailed schoolgirl whose flayed face has been incised across the forehead to expose her skull; a soldier grasps her shoulders while he licks the iris of her bulging eyeball” (77). Hisama goes on to remark viz. “Torture Garden” that the “male-identified figures (the voice and the saxophone [Zorn’s instrument]) can be heard as having an emotional outlet and freedom to play and do whatever they want, the women remain mute and thus uncomplaining about whatever is done to them” (79-80).
Hisama knows Zorn’s music and imagery have gotten him into trouble with concert venues and record companies, and she quotes at length Zorn’s responses to these accusations. The following comments, concerning “Torture Garden,” are typical of his remarks as quoted by Hisama.
"[They’re] coming to me, and . . . they’re saying, “This is wrong. This is not progressive. This is Neanderthal. This happened years ago and you should know better than this. You shouldn’t be doing this. This shouldn’t be out there.” Things are getting confused. It’s a scary time. Nevertheless, I feel right now is a real strong time for me. I’m figuring a lot of [expletive] out, drawing my moral line, and saying, “[Expletive] you. I don’t need this. I’ve got to follow my artistic vision, whether you think it’s repulsive or anti-women or anti-Asian or whatever. I have to follow it through." (81)
While I’m not sure Hisama makes her case, Zorn must entertain the possibility his work plays a supporting role in preserving social structures that abuse certain genders and races. He must then decide whether such structures are a fruitful part of his artistic vision.