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THE CEREMONY (story) Frank B. Ford
NOSESPRAY (poem) Chris Vecchio
IS MADONNA GOOD ART? (essay) Mort Allman
THE HERO WITH FORTY FACES (story) Stacy Tartar

Sparks: A Magazine for Creative People Editors: Jim Esch and Stacy Tartar
Copyright 1993 by Jim Esch and Stacy Tartar All rights for each work contained herein revert back to the author(s) upon publication.

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by Frank B. Ford

The purple strip low in the sky looks like a crowbar to him. Sharp crunching...then heel-strikes as she hits the path.

Shortly he sees the vapor preceding her, the gloom behind pierced by streetlamps. Around them, snow begins revolving.

When he can discover her clothes he comments, "Well you're certainly equipped for the task at hand!"

"I couldn't get back to the apartment to change."

"Still the party animal, hey?"

"You could say that." Her eyes blank in the dimness.

"Well, at any rate, I'm glad you came," he says, "this might have to be the last until the Spring thaw."

"Glad? Never heard you use such an odd word. Have you gone crazy?"

A few wet flakes drop into her hair.

"It must have hurt--I mean for you to leave the party without a stranger."

"Oh? Still the jealous male? My my! But, a discrete hallelujah: no prying" bitty little questions this time--so very manipulative with subtle, soft poison. You're at least over that.

"Time," he shrugs in whispering snow, "the cure and the kill."

"Oh yeah? I'm trying to accept kill, because then hope is dead. And yet here we" are once more. Stupid.

Absently, he turns a hand up as if to capture the sifting snow.

"You never know. And when you do it's too late."

"Well I hope this is the last," the woman sighs.

He had fetched the tools from a car trunk as frigid as Siberia, keeps the shovel and gives her the crowbar. They look for the right place to start, the hard ground beginning to whiten.

Almost as an antidote to their sniping, they dig a half hour without speaking, gulping in icy needles of air and panting out dark vapors.

Soon they have dug--she, though unsteady on her heels, thrusting in with the crowbar, and he scraping away the clods with the shovel--just enough to reveal the larger outline below them: the hair is frost-whorls into which individual giant flakes drift.

"A...little more," he encourages--spasmodic puffs from his mouth darkly surrounding his head.

She demurs, leaning on her crowbar. "C'mon now,don't be a fuss...budget in this" too! she gasps.

But he wins. "Listen this once! Just not enough...depth to really operate," really know when you're...s-striking home!

They again dig in the odors of frozen mud and lye, she sobbing with each thrust, the snow arriving now in stinging, surging waves.

"I'll change. If you want to change." She blinks away the tears as he offers the shovel.

They reverse roles, he driving and twisting in with the crowbar, more deeply than she could, and she, beyond herself, jerkily scooping up after him.

The depth of the exposed form is right, they silently agree. Too much more would exhaust the energy needed now, especially as the wind has begun raging, slamming icy snow into them and whirling it down into the declivities of the thing below.

The tools are dropped, clattering away along the ground as the couple falls down on the form, their beating fists producing a dull, echoing hollowness. On they go far past exhaustion into a loathsome nightmare of sweat and icy slime and dirt.

As the thumps become less and less audible to them, they are retching...then the grating draughts after they must, finally, stop. After some moments they clamber up from out of the grave.

In the fast-ticking hail, she on her knees and he above, hulking, dark: the whole white scene looking like some Medieval ceremony, swarthy knight and weeping maiden. Under them with the matted hair aswirl in flowers of black ice, the horse.

by Chris Vecchio

Pollen rich death rattle-orgasm, Wheeze!

Olfactory submission.

My nose is down on its knees.

Chemical rich cleansing orgasm in breath.

Olfactory well oiled machine.

A brilliant confusion-death!

by Mort Allman

travesty [obs. E travesty, disguised, parodied, fr. F travesti, pp. of travestir to disguise, fr. It travestire, fr. tra-across (fr. L trans-) + vestire to dress, fr. L, fr. vestis garment --- more at WEAR] 1: a burlesque translation or literary or artistic imitation usu. grotesquely incongruous in style, treatment, or subject matter 2: a debased, distorted, or grossly inferior imitation.

I have sensed in the popular and academic press, and among various acquaintances, what can only be called the validation of Madonna as one of the supreme "postmodern" artists of our age. In this attitude there is an implicit aesthetic nod of approval, and if I may I would like to first characterize these aesthetic and cultural assertions of her unique image building power, including my own appreciation of Madonna's unique abilities, and then lay out what I see to be a more truthful acknowledgement, namely that Madonna is merely an icon of certain American tendencies in art which have been called postmodern and further that to equate her cultural dominance with artistic excellence actually changes our notion of what art is and can do. This will not be an essay out to trash Madonna per se; rather, this is as much an essay about the threat to artistic sensibility and an inquiry into the ways we look at artistic practice. Before we rush to validate, we must look away from the video wall, take off the headphones, and think.

The Phenomenon of Madonna
What is most striking about Madonna, and I think what makes her most appealing to structuralists and post-structuralists, is her ability to change images, wear different masks as facets of personality, to fashion a dynamic artistic self of often ontradictory personnas. She is, I think, indisputably postmodern in this regard, that is, she has made a name for herself by appropriating and juxtoposing cultural and ideological bric-a-brac in new and ironical ways.

Let's take a cursory look at her rise to stardom and the image changes she has managed in a relatively short time span. She starts off in the early 1980's as a rather lightweight dance music singer with such songs as "Borderline" and "Lucky Star." But what was her image? This was what catapulted her first and foremost. If you recall she adeptly combined images of her Catholic upbringing (Rosary beads, the crucifix) with a certain. shall we say, post-punk fashion sensibility (black bras, thrift store clothing), then merging this with a dance club goer's attention to makeup, a cute hair style, leotards, so that she ends up as a regurgitated cutey-pie punker, or to look at it another way, a punkisized disco princess. And all the while there is the prominence of Catholic trinkets, which we may recall struck the nerve of young urban and suburban Catholic women all across America. In one sense Madonna appropriated one aspect of the punk movement (its use of religious iconography) and made it safe for the suburban babe.

The point here is that right from the start Madonna's music was less important than her image. I would venture to say that those early hits if you were to simply listen to them on the radio or in a dance club were merely bouncy, standard disco fare. MTV's heightening of the visual element in popular music gave Madonna's "look" a new importance. And this look was, at the time, a curious hodgepodge.

The mere presence of eclectic fashion isn't enough to earn postmodern icon status, however. Let's be clear that fashion has always been important in 20th century popular music; witness Little Richard, Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie, the New York Dolls, punk rock, disco, and lest we forget the carefully packaged look of the early Beatles with their cute neat suits and their too long for comfort mop tops. Madonna can be seen as just another bead on the string in this regard. She happened to have the luck or the foresight to have latched onto a style that was to catch on. What was remarkable about Madonna was that once her image was established in the popular consciousness, she was willing to tinker with that image, refashion it. I recall a huge surge in popularity with her hit "Like a Virgin" which seemed to solidfy what was initially a more liquid play between her coy catholic accoutourments and choreographed sex princess dancing style. But it was a change, it was a bold stroke. You may recall the chorus of that hit:

you make me feel

like a virgin

touched for the very first time

The emphasis falls on the "like a virgin" line. But of course the personna in the song is anything but a virgin, she's merely presenting a conceit to her lover, claiming that he can make her feel like the pure girl for whom sex is all magic, pure discovery. This provides a clue to what I see as Madonna's strength, and it is, you might claim an artistic device or trick, namely, using the pop song as a site for the play of oppositional ideological concepts. In this instance the following oppositions are at work:

virginity - sexual awareness

purity - impurity

love - sex

clean - dirty

But the oppositions aren't just at work in the song. In fact, the song isn't so nearly as important as the image and the video that presents that image. And her image also plays about with these contradictory concepts. Recall the video and the albumn cover's use of a busty closeup of Madonna, made up like a sex kitten of the highest order dressed in pure white lingerie, in a soft, filtered light with the facial expression of a sexual dynamo coyly pretending to be a virgin. No one was going to mistake Madonna for a virgin, what with her history as a go-go dancer, the Playboy photographs, her suggestive dancing in the early videos. No, what we had in this package was a sex vixen crossed with a high-school style virgin. And the package was popularly fertile. We can begin to see why the structurally minded find a home in Madonna's performance art. And yet there is a weakness to this play of opposites, namely that the opposites operate not as two sides of the same coin, but more as a costume, an ornament, a makeup on the true face. Because we "know" Madonna is no virgin, her conceit is merely pretense. This is not a comment on the ability of one to feel like a virgin; it is a comment on Madonna's ability to represent virginity only as an ornament. One might assert that more potent artistic works synthesisize their elements as parts to the whole, as two sides of the same coin, whereas Madonna's postmodern posturing is a part putting on another part. There is no whole.

I do not mean to chart out every twist on the road of Madonna's image enhancement abilities. But I do wish to mention some of the highlights. And now I'd like to turn to her video of the megahit "Like a Prayer," which interestingly is also based on a simile, as if to say I can only compare my experience with purity and religiosity. I can not be these things directly.

In this video we have a hot bed of cultural imagery clashing and contrasting with a now brunette-haired Madonna in her underwear still at the center holding it together as her ever present bust bobs up and down. Here we witness the statue of a black saint come to life, who makes it with Madonna in a church sanctuary, while at the same time in a different narrative we see the secular version of the black man blamed for a murder committed by a gang of white thugs while Madonna glares on guiltily. We have the juxtoposition of a black gospel choir with milky white Madonna, and the contrast of Madonna bumping and grinding it in the foreground while crosses burn in the background.

There are obviously many levels at work here, and one could make a case that most great art does exactly the same thing. Beyond the immediate textual meaning, a work of art elaborates various symbolic meanings beyond it's immediate context. Yet this video seems almost to be drowning in its symbolism. Despite the attempts to affix it to the story line of Madonna witnessing a murder and the trial that ensues, any sense of narrative dissolves into a series of striking images revolving around ideological taboos: Black Man/saint/accused fucking Madonna/slut/victim in a church. Dancing in front of burning crosses, making love to the strains of gospel music, statues of saints turn to life, sow some wild oats, then resolidify. Madonna here has radicalized her artistic device or trick even further. Cultural signifiers play about merely for the sake of breaking taboos, for the sake of playing with contradictions outside of any attempted resolution or definition. Hers is the art of making your eyes widen and not much more.

Of course other videos bear out different incarnations of the Madonna trick. In "Material Girl" we see Madonna approriating the personna of Marilyn Monroe while suitors offer their material wealth in a stage-show movie set atmosphere only to be rejected by Madonna as Marilyn who goes after the guy behind the scenes in the baseball cap. We see the play of material wealth, fabricated beauty, honest affection, etc. Or in another video we see Madonna bumping and grinding as a stark go-go dancer but she's also just another buddy of the kid down the block. The viewer gets to be titillated by a little soft porn made safe for MTV, by the slut who befriends the little boy. We have innocent young boys contrasted with dirty old men, and Madonna mediating between the two. She can trot her stuff for pay, or tap it out with the kid.

On it goes. Madonna moves from video to video, from concert tour to concert tour, from movie to movie, with only one constant purpose that I can detect. And that is to change her image, refashion it so that it contains cultural contradictions, but only to use those contradictions or taboos to the extent that they become exposed, bridged, and then it's on to the next costume change. Her transformations are not always consistently popular, some are more popular than others, but sure enough she seems to have the uncanny ability to tap into what America, even the world wants to see exposed.

It is in this sense that Madonna is essentially postmodern (which glorifies the death of the whole, no matter how fragmented modernism had left it), and a particularly expert postmodern technician. And for this I guess she is to be admired. Whatever you might think about her singing, dancing, or acting, she is indisputably talented at one thing, remaining popular. And here is where I must part company with apoligists for such artists. For we must acknowledge that this is Madonna's main artistic purpose, to ride the top of the charts like a cowboy rides a bronco. There is no higher purpose. Commercial success is the artistic goal of Madonna and nothing more, and she does it without shame. But should we even pose this goal as an artistic one?

The Feminist Salvo
At this juncture I need to address what might be termed a feminist argument in favor of Madonna's artistic practice, because it is a neat way of valorizing her image transformations into something more than repackaging a product. Despite the obvious evidence that Madonna has primarily made her millions as a sex object and displays a unique ability to continue to titillate the general public, the argument goes like this: Because Madonna the person is able to change her image so often and in so many ways, she is in control of her sexuality, she stands in an ironical stance to her sexual personna, and in so doing empowers herself. Her ability to ride the popular wave is a victory for the resourcefulness of an empowered woman. She is no prisoner of sex. She is no dumb blonde. She is street smart. She uses her sexuality rather than being a victim of it. In a postmodern sense she takes the trappings of traditional female roles and by shuffling and juggling them, gains control over them. Such an argument I think has some credence. Madonna has become a powerful cultural force in a very short period of time. And her particular brand of popular resiliency does appropriate traditional female roles to her own ends. But here is where the argument loses steam. Madonna's artistic function ultimately has only a tangential relationship to feminist concerns. Primarily Madonna's skill as an artist doesn't empower women as such, only herself. I say this because I do not see her videos and music as really "saying" anything of substance but as more of a display or exposing of cultural taboos and contradictions. We never get beyond the initial exposure; there is no development. It is merely one change after another, one no-no to the next, the trying-on of cultural masks with the same sincerity that a mall-shopper devotes to trying-on blouses, one regurgitation followed by another recycling job. And yet always at the heart is the central role without which Madonna would be little if not nothing, and that is Madonna as object of sexual desire. I think it dangerous for feminists to inflate the import of an artist who really is just a creative burlesque player, who will do almost anything to be popular, and who does little with her popularity and power.

Madonna, it has been claimed, has mastered the postmodern art of the image, i.e. the image being the fundamental artistic text beyond the music, beyond the song, beyond the dance. If images are supposed to be so much more powerful than words and song lyrics and speeches, then what else are we to see in Madonna when she grabs her crotch in concert and every other sexual gratuity she offers for the public awareness? When she grabs her crotch is she primarily breaking down a cultural barrier? Is she exposing cultural contradictions? Or is she basically clutching her crotch because it hasn't been done on T.V. before? Because at heart the huckster knows that when others zig, it's time to zag? What else is truly being sold besides a sex object? A woman trades sex for power. How far does that advance the cause? Is there anything really daring about that? It's time to name things for what they are and stop looking for substance in places where surface is queen.

Art as Commodity
I have asserted that Madonna's prime function as an artist is to be popular, and that as such, is a notably succesful artist. What we need to consider now is how a phenomenon such as Madonna helps ratify the status of artistic production as commodity. We needn't dwell on the fact that Madonna is a commercial artist. Her activity is part of a vast cultural capitalism where music and videos are mass produced and televised worldwide. I do not think any of us would be talking about Madonna at all if it weren't for the fact that she has made millions for herself and her coporate culture merchants. We must recognize this fact and not dismiss it, because more often than not in this age. most of us spend our time trying to rationalize the products of artists only because those artists are popular.

We have to look at the real definition of what it means to be popular. We're not talking about the sort of popular that made certain cliques in high school the envy of the rest of us geeks. We don't mean popular in the sense of being liked, or of being conducive to the general will. Well maybe in a stretched sense of the word we mean these things. Rather the definition of popular that operates most strongly is simply that being popular means selling a lot of product. And when you have the monstrous hype-engine that is corporate advertising and marketing on your side, creating a market demand for your product, the import of one's popularity as a result of free choice becomes suspect. Of course, people like an artist such as Madonna; they would not purchase her music or attend her concerts otherwise. So the original meaning of popularity still applies; however, the moment of popularity in our culture only begins when the artist realizes his/her likeability into real dollars. My point here is that we can like somone's art without having to buy it (e.g. going to a museum and admiring impressionistic painters, or listening to musicians on the radio), but we only create popularity by buying it. So when you convert that likeability into the purchase of a print at the museum gift shop, or when you go to the store and buy the CD of the artist you heard on the radio, only then do you contribute to making that artist popular.

Our present American popular culture is a mixture of hype-factory and the ratifying choice of the buyer's preference. So when we read the popular press, watch Entertainment Tonight or a talk show or MTV, we find a combination of competitors: various want-to-be's being marketed through videos, profiles, interviews, etc., and the already-made-it-ites whose presence on a show or in a magazine, while inevitably tied to a new cultural product being sold, also provides shine for the outlet itself, which is, afterall, in business as well.

It is up to the consumer to sift among these various choices and lay money out for the established winner and the wanna-be. Reckoning-time comes at the end of the day when the company counts the change. To be likeable no longer means to be popular; rather, to be popular is to be profitable.

So what's all the fuss about? Certain people express their like for something through purchasing it, which makes it popular. Correct. But those of us who like to think about these things are in danger of making a serious mistake. If we could leave it at that we'd be fine. Madonna has about the same worth as Levi jeans. This would be a truism worth mulling over. But we make this mistake: we say 'Madonna, because she sings and dances, is an artist, and art is more than blue jeans or perfume. ' We might suppose a syllogism here.

Madonna is an artist.

Artistic production has more use value than other productions.

Therefore, Madonna's art has value.

I am not a logician, so forgive the leaky syllogism. Let me try to illuminate the problem further. I do not dispute that Madonna is an artist, if we are to mean by artist, someone who produces imagined, fictive artefacts in a sensory medium (visual, aural, spatial, written, etc.). Of course she is an artist in the general sense. But why are we singling her out among the multitude of others like her? Because she is popular, or to more truly put it, because she is commericially viable, the fittest to have survived. And she has been able to maintain her popularity through various stylistic convolutions. This presents her to us as a phenomenon, the same way we would remark about an extended heat wave, or a severe storm.

Basically the market offers us Madonna for consideration and says 'She's so popular, and she's an artist, you must acknowledge that her art is important.' Many respond like trained seals ''re right. We can't ignore the cultural import. There must be something behind all this. Something artistic at work.' Bullshit. Yes, there's something at work, but it may have nothing to do with art.

The incidence of popularity, especially commercial popularity, should have no bearing on a work of art's merit. There are simply too many factors to ignore. Are we willing to say that works with little financial muscle behind them resulting in poor distribution resulting in a lowered awareness among the mass consumers, and which subsequently fall through the market's net of value into the pit of obscurity...are we to blindly say that because these works never 'made it,' that they were probably of low artistic value? Of course not. So why then should we note that the very popular, of which Madonna is only one example, deserve the slightest consideration regarding artistic merit? You can't deny the one side and accept the opposite. No. We must resist the urge to ratify art based on its market status. We have to recognize that there are too many non-artistic reasons for a work's popularity.

Many probably object to this discussion as reactionary. I might characterize it as rejectionary. I reject the notion that profitability (popularity) should be a gauge by which we judge artistic merit. I reject this because to accept it as an assumption is to give in to the demands of capitalist mythology, that the market can supply all your needs, that the present system of mass production and mass consumption is a worthy base for ethical and aesthetic values. That the good is that which sells. That the bad is that which doesn't turn a profit. That the weak man is he who can't run a business correctly. That the strong man is he who can squeeze the most from the least. That the beautiful is that which sells. That the ugly is that which doesn't pay for itself. That the primary role of the artist is to move the merchandise. That the prime goal of life is to accumulate capital. That art is subservient to capital.

That art is subservient to capital is a sad fact, perhaps the most definitive fact of postmodern art, the art that regurgitates past art in kaleidoscopic transformations of the old. In fact, our present age of postmodernism has essentially destroyed artistic production and enslaved it completly to mass production and the dynamics of the mass market. The fact that a Madonna exists, is so popular, and is taken seriously is merely one example of the cultural travesty we call art today. I don't mean to trash all that goes under the name of art today...I do mean to say the kind of art Madonna perpetuates and the kind of criticism that ratifies such artistic production both combine to destroy the concept of art as anything other than cultural competition for the senses. I can't change the facts. We live in such an age. In the midst of this cultural junkyard we find ourselves in, amid the sad dance of phony oppositions like talk show- commerical, video-advertisment, all subservient to the almighty profit motive...amid this muck, I'd like to not return to the old way of thinking, but rather to try to build something real and true. I'd like to build a way of looking at artistic production that acknowledges the realities of today, but doesn't apologize for it.


by Stacy Tartar

He was a slack man, a fastitidious organizer and a lazy worker. He liked carrots, or anything else, from a can. He was easily shocked, always frightened, frequently huddled in a corner or a doorway, and terribly, terribly hungry. At sundown he would walk around and howl at empty trashcans. He lived (where else?) in the city, on a street beloved by others, not him. How could he love it? It was full of soggy newspapers when he was a man who liked and believed in blankets. He fled from rain, though sometimes, feeling religious, he would sit and sway in it. He was a blasphemer the rest of the time.

Once upon a time the man had a different face, a lovely, cherubic face that knew nothing. Knowledge had changed the man's face dramatically, had pinched and pulled and pummeled it. Fault lines widened on his brow. His cheeks and chin caved in and stuck out like disaster areas.

His eyes seemed permanently flooded. He looked at others as if he were looking up from a firey pit. He was a worried man. Most of the time he felt pain.

The man's imagination would just as soon soar with eagles as swim with sharks.

It could invent companionship and even food. It enabled him to wear a ripped pair of underwear wrapped loosely around his genitals and pieces of other people's clothes and shoes. To the man's imagination, sounds and smells were potent messengers from beyond the street, carrying truth and beauty and horror.

Pigeons and rats were prominent creatures in his private mythology, which he kept absolutely secret, as it was his last source of power in a world otherwise consumed by cement walls, gaseous fumes, and roaches.

The man's imagination could do all but what we might consider most essential.

Once in a while the man would meet other slack men and women or other slack families with whom he would exchange sickness before moving on. The man's face when ill turned a hideous yellow-gray.

It was during an explosion, one late afternoon before sundown, while stores and houses and businesses burned furiously around him, that the man fell down and died. All of his faces melted into the street, and the rest of him followed.

by Jim Esch


We should live and love
and forget what old men say

the sun rises and sets
but our sun once set

is a never ending sleep.

Just kiss me, once,
again, a thousand

then a hundred, then
another thousand and

a second hundred yet
another thousand then

after making many thousands
we'll scatter the number

so no one can know
or grow jealous at

the sum of our kisses.


I hate and I love.
You ask how I do this.

I do not know
but I know it

I do it
I feel it


and I am ripped apart.