The artifact I have chosen today is a scene acted out by spoken word artist Steve Connell (who wrote the script) and actress Faye Reagan. Spoken word poetry—often derided by so-called serious poets—is poetry of the people. It is a successful democratization of poetry, an art form that has been controlled by the elite. Spoken word, influenced by the Beats and by African American discourse strategies (preaching, rapping, etc), has deep roots as a tool of the oppressed to name the oppressor. This particular artifact represents a deviation from traditional spoken word in that it is performed for the sake of being filmed. It, perhaps, is using the master’s tools to attempt to dismantle the master’s house. The artifact fits into the schemas outlined by cultural critics is a variety of ways.
On a Meta level, this is a piece of political art. It criticizes the dominant system. In this way, it falls into Raymond Williams’ idea of art. Moreover, it employs art—specifically film and poetry—as a strategy for challenging the system. This is but one of many spoken word pieces that level critiques of this nature. In particular, the theme of this poem is a theme of many of Connell’s poems. Additionally, the actors in the film are Connell (a poet) and Reagan (currently a porn star). They represent the tension that the artifact explores. As for the content of the artifact itself, the critique it levels at society is two-fold:
First, it critiques the entertainment industry itself. The Reagan character arrived for the interview with the Connell character precisely because she wanted to be rich and famous. And, while the Reagan character has doubts about how much of her soul she is willing to sell, she certainly considers the offer made by the Connell character. The industry, as described in rather frank terms by the Connell character, is only concerned with making money so that those who make the money can have pleasure. So, the Reagan character will have to accept overt sexism and objectification from the Connell character and from the industry. She will have to learn that being “sweet” won’t help her, that honor doesn’t matter, and that she is going to have to “drop that top.” She is captive to capitalist notions of happiness—sold on the premise that money will buy her what she wants. The only thing the industry considers is cost, and thus it walks the line between “commerce and Hell.”
The second part of the critique is the one leveled against the audience. All that the audience cares about is pleasure. It, too, has bought into the capitalist idea. The Connell character argues that integrity, morality, and justice do not sell. If they did, then Gandhi would get a commission for every person he freed and “Dr. King would dream in 3-D” for others to watch with special glasses. People want to watch sex and they want to watch gladiator type sequences. And they are willing to use their money to pay for this pleasure.
On a final level, the artifact—utilizing the strategy of art to critique the dominant system—urges people to make use of the tactic of refusing to compromise. In Michel de Certeau’s terms, the Reagan character is weak. She can only use tactics. Like her, those who are trapped by the system can refuse to compromise. This won’t beat the system, but it allows agents some choice. Refusing to compromise is a tactic and not a strategy because it is purely reactionary to—and takes place on the turf of—the dominant system. The strategy—of Steve Connell and the others associated with this film—being, of course, that if enough people make use of the tactic, then the system will be changed. One irony of the film is that Faye Reagan went on from this film to become a very successful porn actress, obviously deciding that being rich and famous was more important than resisting the system.