Oral History — October 19, 2017, 1:40 pm

Moral Turpitude

The many transgressions of Carolee Schneemann

Photograph by Cassidy Ellis

From a conversation between Carolee Schneemann and Stephanie LaCava that took place in March at Schneemann’s home in New Paltz, New York. Carolee Schneemann is a multimedia artist. Her performance piece “Meat Joy” was first presented in 1964. Earlier this year, Schneemann received the Golden Lion Lifetime Achievement Award at the Venice Biennale. Kinetic Painting, a retrospective of Schneemann’s work, is on view this month at MoMA PS1. LaCava is a writer based in New York City.

I grew up in a Pennsylvania village. My father was a physician whose medical practice exposed me to bodies, their invisible processes, illnesses, and viscera. Injured people came to the back door as if dad was the hospital, presenting him with bloody arms or injured body parts.

One of my favorite Dad stories: I was learning to sew, and I was upstairs in the house making a cotton square-dance skirt. The needle slipped and went through my finger. I ran downstairs with my bloody finger still stitched into the fabric. I alerted Dad, “Look, look, I really hurt myself.” He studied the finger and said, “Not bad for an amateur.”

He was warm, delightful, charming. He was never defensive or mean. He was great except for being part of the patriarchy. He wouldn’t send me to college. He wanted to send me to typing school. He yelled at me that I was using big words that my brother didn’t understand. And he would talk about my growing up to be a proper mother.

I had a boyfriend in grade school, a farm kid, I think his name was Burt. We were eight or nine and he always sat next to me on the bus. I loved the school bus. It smelled of fuel, old leather, woolly clothing. He’d sit next to me and he liked to touch my skirt. One morning he said, “When we grow up, will you breed my babies?”

I had a keen instinct that I was not going to become a cow. I would observe men pat their pregnant wives’ stomachs as if the stomachs were theirs. I hated that. Even though I was little I would think, “That’s not his stomach.”

I started going from Pennsylvania to New York when I was thirteen or fourteen. We could hitchhike then; it wasn’t dangerous. Everything became dangerous by the mid-Sixties, but at the end of the Fifties twelve-year-old girls could put their thumbs up and somebody would give them a ride. Once when I was sixteen we got all the way to Maine and lived in a fishing cottage in South Harpswell. I was painting ocean vistas, reading Goethe’s color theory, as well as D’Arcy Thompson’s On Growth and Form. I was with a girlfriend who was a poet, and I had a boyfriend, a painter, who would turn up every now and then. We had so very little money that a cigarette had to last forever. We ate what fell off the fishing boats and washed up in our inlet, and I gathered wild greens for salad.

Unexpectedly I received a scholarship from Bard—that was wonderful! I had gone to a little country high school because my parents were convinced that I was withering away in public school. At this magical country day school the teacher taught English four hours a day. Everything else was squeezed around it. We read all kinds of poetry and we had to write—if you didn’t write you were sent out into a pasture to play by yourself. The class could write about anything, a Coke bottle, a pet dog, but we had to present writing. I flourished there. My teacher wrote a note and told me, “Keep this with you forever. Your parents won’t want you to go to college, but you have to go.” And she wrote down three names: Antioch, Goddard, Bard.

I applied to Bard against my parent’s wishes. The provost, who gave students scholarships, appeared one day in the infirmary at my high school. His name was Buzz Gummere and he wanted to know why my dad wouldn’t fill out a financial statement. They offered me a full room-board-tuition scholarship.

Bard was revelatory. I loved having my own little room to work in, which I painted black and red. The dormitory housed other young woman who were very caring. One day, I came back to my room and found on my bed a red flannel duffle coat with big pockets and toggles. It was a perfect coat. In one of the pockets I found a container that held a mystifying rubber circle. This was a loan of the secret shared dormitory contraceptive. (The tragedy was that I had to give the coat back so that it would be passed on.)

At Bard my favorite painting teacher told me, “Don’t set your heart on art. You’re only a girl.” All the male English teachers there were famous writers. They would look at your behind and make unpleasant comments about your shape, would they like to fuck you or not. I went to meet with my poetry teacher in his apartment. He was lying under a red blanket with candles around him and a bottle of wine and two glasses. And there was something sticking up under the covers between his legs. I told him, “I forgot to bring my footnotes. I have to go.”

My professors at Bard rejected my proposals to write about Virginia Woolf. Then they refused my intention to write about Simone de Beauvoir. My philosophy professor told me, “Honey, why do you want to write about the mistress when you can write about the master?”

Junior year I was forced to leave Bard for “moral turpitude.” I always hoped that this was a typographical mistake and that I was to be punished for “immoral turpentine.” I realized only recently that my transgression must have been the sequence of anatomically explicit nude self-portraits I was painting in my room. Bard had no life drawing at the time and I was anxious to study a human form.

For some legal reason Bard extended my scholarship to the Columbia School of Painting and Sculpture and to the New School. This was actually beneficial. I moved in with a Bard graduate to her apartment in New York City, utterly thrilling. The building is still there, at 15th Street and 8th Avenue.

The way I met Jim Tenney was mystical. While at Columbia I would stop at a little café at 116th and Morningside Heights, somewhere around there. You could get a big soup with bread for a dollar.

In the café I saw this guy at a back table with sort of wonderful hair, eating like a tiger. He was bent over his plate and he was handsome and thin and had a strange energy. He wasn’t like anyone I had ever seen before. The second time I saw him there I was about to throw up because I lived only on cigarettes and I was carrying a huge portfolio. He was looking at me. I had to leave.

Some months later I put my hair up in braids to go to a Bach and Charles Ives concert that was free for students—New York was so amazing in the middle of May. The pianist was just coming out, and then this skinny guy appeared, late, after everybody else was seated. He came around to the aisle next to me and sat down. We were staring at each other: “What are you doing here?” I wondered. At intermission I looked for him. He was behind a pillar. I didn’t know how to approach him. I went down to the bathroom. When I got back, he’d left the pillar. I hurried downstairs, then back upstairs to look behind the pillar, and finally I came up to him. We said to each other, “I have seen you at the café.” He said he was a composer and pianist studying at Juilliard. I said I was a painter. And he said, “Oh, painting. Well, I’m working with sound as if it’s space.” And I said, “I’m working with space as if it’s movement.” Then we went out for coffee. We only had enough money to share one cup.

Jim was born in New Mexico, he grew up in Colorado, he had that energy, something Western. It’s not like East Coast energy. He slapped his thigh as if the cattle were grazing. We became lovers in his terrible little room with no windows at Juilliard. Unbeknownst to me there was a student from the Philippines next door who would hear us making love. I know that because he turned out to be an artist, and we met in London later. He told me, “I recognize your voice.”

I’m fortunate to have the voice that I do. I’m so upset with young women’s voices. I’m really distressed. There’s the new slur speech where whatever you’re saying you blur it at the end. I was very influenced by old New England artists who have such beautiful, firm, defined language. It was articulated, musical.

In May, Jim had his graduate piano concert. We were asleep in his little horrible room and he got up and put on his only jacket and I said, “Good luck. I hope it goes beautifully. I hope it’s perfect.” He’d been practicing like a mad person: Ives, Werbern. I fell back asleep, and it seemed like barely any time passed before he was back. I said, “How was it?”

“It was yesterday.” He had slept through it because we’d been making love. It was a fucking disaster. His professor never forgave him. His scholarship was taken away. We were completely at a loss, didn’t know what to do. I met a dreadful greasy grocer who owned apartments on York Avenue and I flirted enough so that I got an apartment and then Jim and I had to hide from the grocer and from my parents.

What I’m telling you about the history at Bard is the basis for what I call “Double Knowledge.” There was the knowledge I knew I had to live by and there was the knowledge that the wall of male culture insisted was appropriate, but that was not true to my experience. I carried that sense, very clearly, always.

I inherited a completely male cultural tradition. I had never had a woman teacher for art. I had never found a precedent of woman artists in the art history books available to me. I would discover them later while researching in foreign history books. I felt that I was an outlaw, intruding in a masculine realm.

In the Sixties, as a proto-feminist, my work was deeply misunderstood whenever I used the body, because it was assumed that it was an appeal to male culture. But I was trying to subvert it. I took my films to curators and they said, “This is shit. If you want to paint, put your clothes back on and go paint.” I was rejected by every interesting gallery in New York City.

My sexuality was distracting and confusing to the galleries, though I didn’t understand it at the time. In 1963, when I enacted my Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions for the camera, my intention was to be both image and image maker. The traditions of the female nude had always been the central obsession of the male artists I studied, from the French surrealists to the Pop artists. None of these depictions related to my experience. It was my wish to transform and vitalize an actual artist’s female body as part of her materials.

I was one of the first female artists to integrate my own nude body into action photographs. I felt I was physicalizing the kinetic implications of abstract expressionism.

Only an ideal physical body could manage to subvert the traditional expectations of pleasing the male gaze. If our bodies didn’t look appealing we couldn’t have gotten subversive messages through them. We would’ve been laughed away or dismissed as feeble pornographers. There is now marked appreciation for all the pussies I have fought to celebrate. Meow.

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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

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When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

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