“When I look back on my life, it’s not that I don’t want to see things exactly as they happened; it’s just that I prefer to remember them in an artistic way. And truthfully, the lie of it all is much more honest, because I invented it.”
— Lady Gaga, “Marry the Night: The Prelude Pathetique”
Oscar Wilde’s essays “The Decay of Lying” and “Pen, Pencil, and Poison” suggest two important, related concepts: that art is artifice, and that art is existence. During the presentation on “Pen, Pencil, and Poison,” it was suggested that the essay functions as Wilde’s attempt to examine and embellish Wainewright’s life—it essentially serves as a model for artistic self-fashioning. As we discussed, it seems as this retroactive construction can operate on two levels. It can be used as a coping mechanism or as a true artistic expression. That does not mean that the two are mutually exclusive, of course, but there is a higher level motivation in the second iteration that is driven by the desire for conceptual holism. Artistic recreation should seek to acknowledge all parts of the self as necessary and beautiful. In this post, I utilize Wilde’s method presented in “Pen, Pencil, and Poison” to examine Lady Gaga’s artistic self-fashioning.
It is easy to dismiss Lady Gaga as a meaningful study because of her inherent status as a pop star, but her statements and actions reveal themselves to be quite Wildean—and by extension, Nietzschean—in nature. In a turn perhaps borrowed directly from Wilde himself, Gaga proclaims, “Art is a lie.” Gaga recognizes the implicit deceit in art and uses that knowledge to manipulate the truth; she explains, “It’s not that I’ve been dishonest, it’s just that I loathe reality.” Through the posturing found in pieces like “Marry the Night,” we realize that she has transformed herself from a person into a living embodiment of art. She is no longer Stefani Germanotta, but Lady Gaga.
It is important to understand that there is no static image of Gaga; as she states, “The power of transformation is endless.” Like any artist, her work can be chronicled into periods distinguished by specific wigs, makeup, and costumes. Nonetheless, they are all immediately recognizable as “Gaga.” In a sense, there is a particular essence, a common thread, that runs through her art. This is evocative of Wilde’s suggestion that art acts as a “form” or “archetype” (1082). Gaga has transitioned from character to concept.
Gaga as “Jo Calderone,” “You & I” single cover
The idea of character, nevertheless, remains integral to Gaga’s image. In “The Decay of Lying,” Vivian argues, “The only real people are the ones who never existed” (1075). Fictional characters are not constrained by reality; they can adapt and conform as they please, and their motivations arise from possibility, not necessity. This concept is most explicit in Lady Gaga’s music videos, which constitute the visual component of her art. Gaga performs as a myriad of characters, from a bandana-sporting chola Mary Magdalene in “Judas;” to a KGB sex slave in “Bad Romance;” to both a man, an alter-ego affectionately named Jo Calderone, and a mermaid in “You & I.” By embodying these different personas, she “makes and unmakes many worlds” (1082). Gaga is able to extort reality in favor of art.
Gaga, “Born This Way” single cover
This power, however, is not without problem. This is best exemplified by Gaga’s appearance in the “Born This Way” video. The song is an anthemic acceptance of all peoples, regardless of ethnicity, sexuality, or religion, yet in the video, Gaga appears as a gaunt shadow, features obscured by strange, angular prostheses. It is overwhelmingly evident that she was not “born this way,” but she posits this as a true representation of herself.
This reveals a particular tension between artifice and authenticity. Gaga asks us to suspend reality and believe the lie that she has created; she asserts, “It is my destiny to exist halfway between reality and fantasy at all times.” We’re smart enough to know her constructions are fiction, and we may even call into question her motivations, yet we still accept them as part of Lady Gaga. Effectively, we cannot judge her by “any external standard” (1082). All iterations of Gaga are equally valid and essential to her existence. After all, she suggests, “I’ve reckoned that perhaps there is no…need to distinguish between artifice and consciousness.” While this quotation is startlingly reminiscent of Des Esseintes’s aesthetic attitude, it also intimates that there is no moral distinction between truth and fiction, art and life; they are one and the same.
While we may be hesitant to adopt Lady Gaga’s grandiose gesturing like we reject Wainewright’s murderous tendencies, they both serve as interesting case studies for exploring the relationship between art, artifice, and existence. They have become larger than life; they become the lie, and in that, they become beautiful.
Gaga quotations come from this op-ed found in V Magazine.