Atlanta artist Jane Foley and I started using this term about a year ago to describe our shared love of things that are appealing and relatable in their imperfection. I am going to do my best to delve into what exactly this aesthetic is, as she and I will be working collaboratively with that theme for the month.
(My apologies to anyone who thinks that referring to something as “shitty” is insulting — it is with great regard and endearment that I use this terminology, much in the way that the words “sick”, “wicked” and “bad” became positive and complimentary terms in parts of the 1980’s and 90’s American culture).
I will begin with a summary of Shitty/Poetic: It is something that is trying while not hiding at all how hard it is trying. When something is outlandish and solitary enough that you want to love it forever. When ugliness makes you strip off any vestiges of trying to pass as a normal and/or successful person and allows you to run free in the dirty, dirty embrace of the unseemly. Stick and poke tattoos, the penguin turtleneck I made into a sexy midriff shirt as a 6-year-old, the first/ test pancake, the glitter that got left behind.
So then, what is the difference between something just being shitty/bad — as in, not preferable, and shitty/good — as in, wow I really love that shitty thing, I feel its poetry seeping into my being? Two examples come to mind.
The first example is this little hand that I drew in my notebook last year while creating choreography for a collaboration with Erin Palovick called “Unsound.” I often draw images to go with movement as reminders, and the second that little hand got born, I knew it was a shining star. I make lots of drawings that would fall outside of most people’s ideas of what constitutes something aesthetically pleasing — though, that it might be radical by these concepts is not the only requirement for me to like something. Somehow this little hand was so very relatable. It was trying really hard while failing at being accurate. I could know that little hand, I knew exactly what it was like to feel like that crappy little hand. It was real and making its way as a unique being.
Not needing something to fit into a classical structure, or be validated by the measure and merit accredited to time and vigilance (as much as I am fans of both), can offer by comparison a moment or thing that can just BE amazing and accurate in the sense of what it is embodying and conveying.
Shitty/Poetic is saying something that cannot be said in any other way, which reminds me of the imperative given by a choreographer as to what makes a piece valuable and productive — that it could not in its place be expressed in words.
The second example is more about the untrained eye – a drawing of my roommate that lives in our kitchen. It is a portrait drawn by his friend’s child. In it, his bangs look like the tiny brim of a hat, his glasses have fused into an armless, cat eye mono-lens (please God someone make these real, because I want them), his face is dominated by his nostrils and nose ring, while he remains completely lacking in ears.
Would this suffice as an accurate portrait should he ever go missing? Probably not. Is it a good and true depiction of him? Absolutely. For me, it is the most accurate image of him. I love every part of it and am riddled with jealousy that I do not have a matching portrait of myself to go alongside it. I have several times told my roommate he should have the portrait tattooed on top of his actual face. This kid’s choices of what to capture and how to efficiently document my roommate’s features are absolutely astounding. To be clear, I don't think this is the case with every piece of art made by children per se, but occasionally I think kids hit on something that is really un-fettered. And inside that honesty is a welcomed mirror to reality we are often trained away from, particularly as artists.
Ultimately, I realize I am using negative terms in a way to reclaim the judgement cast upon things that end up in the rejected or “interesting” pile — as I myself often do.
Which leads me to realize how coincidental this is with my political life and beliefs. which are as you might guess upon knowing me, very Queer indeed. And not just the gay parts of Queer, but the admiration and regard for the non-normative.
Closer to the pejorative and derisive meaning of Queer that is at its roots — and why many older gay folks still cringe at its use. At one time an insult, as being different was (and still is) dangerous, irreverent, subversive, and in general uneasy-making for a general populace that has agreed upon norms. It is the runt of a litter, the odd one out, the one triangle up in that pile of squares, all Queer.
Since the older I get, the queerer I am or have been upon reflection, this admiration for things shitty and poetic extends also from how I am. Nothing I have done followed a normal approach, every choice I have made along the way felt like a risk if not an aberration against the grain of what makes you someone who is smart and successful. I still feel in constant doubt of my instinct because it feels in a near non-stop backstroke though the butter of the south, of the arts community, of the way people live and support themselves. And that’s not a claim to being tough or cool — it’s saying I am genuinely never certain that I’m not making the biggest mess of everything in my life. And truthfully, I might be, which is frightening and humbling. None of it makes me a good artist, or a good person for that matter. Those are all still up for question, and probably always will be.
Being a 40-year-old, Transgender, Queer, Choreographer who doesn't know how to do anything normal is terrifying (just to be clear, simply having any of these identities does not make someone abnormal or unable to do normal things, this is my particular experience I am referencing). It’s not cool at all! Seriously, it’s the least cool you can feel. And, it’s the truth even if it isn’t the best. It’s what I love when I look at the world. Just like that kids drawing, somehow, it’s my favorite way to see my friend: raw and uncluttered by beauty. It’s a deeply frightening way to love things, but it’s my favorite. And even if I could help it, I still wouldn’t.
(In line with this, some shameless but highly relevant self-promotion: please see the collaborative choreographic work “fails” created by myself and fellow choreographer Blake Beckham, showing at WORK ROOM in Atlanta this Autumn).