I think people in the arts are fascinated by Kathy Chang because she was a big talker. That's the reason why people in the arts and on the Left are fans of Bernie Sanders. He talks big, like the time, during his 2016 presidential campaign, when he told the New York Daily News he wanted to "break up the banks" but when pressed for details on how to do that, he had nothing. Which doesn't seem to bother Sanders fans, which includes Chang's friend Anita King, who never shut up about how corrupt Hillary Clinton and the Democrats were during the 2016 presidential campaign until I unfriended her on Facebook.
While we were still speaking, King attested to the political affinity.
Bernie Sanders has something in common with my ex - they were both, at least for periods of time in their lives, deadbeat dads. Sanders' ex-girlfriend and child ended up receiving welfare, although Sanders, a white man with a college degree could certainly have found a job that paid well enough to support his kid. But, like my ex, Sanders preferred to devote himself to politics.
Unlike my ex, Sanders eventually found himself a living-wage career through politics. Although I will say, there are few people who live to see their fondest dream come true, like my ex did when marijuana began to be legalized all around the United States.
Chang may be considered a performance artist, but her art was almost always in the language of politics. For example:
I am running on a platform of complete social transformation.The problems we are faced with today: crime, unemployment,poverty, battered women, abused children, pollution,environmental degradation, national insolvency, and budgetdeficits, and so on, cannot be solved within the presenteconomic and political framework, because that frameworkis in itself the fundamental problem and the cause of all the otherproblems. The present government is so corrupt and tiedup with anti-democratic procedures that it cannot reformitself. The only way to reform the system is to simplydissolve the system and start all over with a great nationalconference to create a new society...
"...simply dissolve the system and start all over with a great national conference to create a new society."
It's perfect that sentence contains "simply."
Hudes' play includes Kathy/Jenn's death, which is not shown on stage, and then later one of the characters has a magic realism moment with an apparition of Jenn, during which Jenn says some Kathy Chang style things. Huldes also directly quotes Chang:
RUBY: Jenn should have held up. Occupy would've been her moment. I dug up one of her old banners: "In case of financial collapse, party in the streets!"
It's true that Occupy was a lot like Chang: a big-talking public nuisance that did nothing to actually improve the lives of others. But got a lot of attention.
But indirectly thanks to Chang, I came to rely on the very real social safety net that had existed for fifty years, because the Democratic Party made it happen, through boring old non-revolutionary politics. The same Democratic Party that many Bernie Sanders supporters disparage as identical to Republicans.
That is why I dislike the use of Chang and her death as a symbol for hope and for positive social change. I believe Chang killed herself, at age 46, because the rewards for her performances were fading and she did not want to, or could not do anything else. And because no goddam person in her life would help her with her dental problems.
Fun fact: dental care is part of Obamacare, which exists thanks to the Democratic Party. But the far Left hates Obama for not achieving the completely socialized healthcare of their dreams, so they don't care how many lives were saved by Obamacare.
So really you could say Occupy was Kathy Chang's moment, since Obamacare first appeared in 2010, just ahead of Occupy in 2011. She could have partied at Occupy without tooth decay.
Chang did not only do protests, she was involved in theater, at least to the extent that she had performed in a production of "The Year of the Dragon" written by her then-husband Frank Chin, a fairly well-known playwright. Her response to the end of their 5-year marriage was to try to kill herself.
And Chang wrote a play which was performed and videotaped in 1991. It's called The Transformation and it's as allegorical as a medieval morality play. There's Uncle Sam, there's a character representing third-world poverty, there's Mother Nature, the Military-Industrial Complex, etc. It has all the coherence and self-discipline of her speeches, that is, very little.
But it's interesting that she wrote it and I'm impressed she got anybody to perform it. I've watched it and the basic plot starts from the clash of these various Humors but then evolves into sex bringing characters together and by the end of the play the cast is semi-naked and chanting and dancing in a circle.
At the end of the play, Chang displays her extremely romanticized view of pre-Industrial Native American society.
Think back. Think back. Before the Europeans landed. There are no skyscrapers and streets. No highways and electric wires. No, just trees and forests everywhere. Forest full of wild animals. Coyotes. Dear. Bear. Bobcats. Wolves. Natives. Lenni Lenape. Algonquin. Hopi. Cherokee. Chippewa. The streams are jumping with fish. You hunt with bow and arrows. No guns. You live off fruits and berries and herbs. You grow corn and squash and peas. You worship the earth and are careful not to bite the hand that feeds you. You don't squander my resources.
I don't know if Chang was completely ignorant of the fact that pre-European contact North America was not a peaceable vegetarian kingdom, and that indigenous people ate meat, sometimes human meat and warred against each other plenty without the aid of guns, or if she just doesn't care. But what she is advocating is "going back in time" to this Garden of Eden fantasy.
If Chang had not killed herself, she would be 72 years old now. If she hadn't killed herself when she did, the way she did, I doubt people in the arts would care about her.
My ex wrote on his blog:
Kathy killed herself on the University of Pennsylvania campus in 1996. Visually and physically like the Buddhist monks of Vietnam, she poured gasoline over herself and her robes and set herself on fire. The political effect was unlike that of the monks. The world did not sit up and take notice. The country did not erupt into revolution.
My ex seems to believe Chang's rhetoric, that she killed herself in that way to bring on the Revolution, and he mourns that she did not achieve her goal.
I think she killed herself that way so that people would remember her, and in that she has been wildly successful. Being included in a play by a Pulitzer-prize winner is probably her greatest success yet.
More about that in the next post.