Invitation to Yin Yang
On July 21, Outfest at MOCA Grand in Los Angeles hosted the world premiere of the documentary film, Steven Arnold: Heavenly Bodies. The documentary pulled from over 70 hours of video footage, as well as a wealth of photographs and artwork from the Steven Arnold Archive. Steven Arnold (1943-1994) was a prolific visual artist in photography, filmmaking, painting, makeup artistry, costume design, illustration, and set design. He was friends with Pandora, Holly Woodlawn, Ruth Weiss, Ellen Burstyn, Angie Bowie, Diana Vreeland, Timothy Leary, and he was adored by Salvador Dali. And in many ways Steven Arnold was an embodiment of two eras in 20th century American history.
The 60s counter culture and the 80s AIDS crisis shocked “normative” American society. During the 60s no one under 30 could be trusted. The youth abandoned the post-war American dream and explored a lifestyle that defied social values, war, and Western religion. They took drugs, were sexually promiscuous, explored Eastern philosophy, and broke down the family unit through communal living. In another chapter, two decades later AIDS decimated the gay community. When singer Klaus Nomi was diagnosed he was quarantined because doctors did not know the threat posed by the disease. It wasn’t just patients in hospitals who were quarantined. This fear led society to severely judge queer people, creating stigmas toward the disease and the entire community. It is against these two backdrops that Steven Arnold projected beauty and love into this world.
Arnold is best known for his tableau vivant photographs created in his Los Angeles Zanzibar studio. He often used the floor as a canvas to design scenes created by assemblage art, whereupon a model in an exotic costume and makeup would recline. The end result was an image of a divine being suspended in the ether. Heavenly Bodies brings us into Zanzibar, and zooms into these works to reveal that many of the elaborate set designs were created out of common and inexpensive items, such as buttons or cheap toys. Arnold did not qualify producing art with a budget. Like his contemporary in New York, Jack Smith known for producing film sets with found objects, Arnold was able to assemble common items into masterpieces. It wasn’t just his art that was a gift to the world, it was the ability to see the potential in what is seemingly irrelevant. These works were created during a time when people in the gay community were objectified and were being thrown out by society. But Arnold saw a greater purpose in what others disregarded. If Arnold could draw out the potential from a toothpaste cap, just imagine what potential he could bring out in a person.
Throughout his career Steven Arnold brought out beauty in people. In the 80s when society distanced itself from the gay community, Arnold turned these men into angels. Even earlier in his career when he hosted his Nocturnal Dreamshow midnight movie programs at The Palace Theater in San Francisco, he was responsible for the formation of the Cockettes, a queer performance troupe, which eventually gained national recognition. But it wasn’t just queer people that were inspired by Arnold. In the documentary, his close friend actress Ellen Burstyn discusses how one day Arnold made a comment about her drab appearance. She responded she wasn’t concerned with her fashion, because she channeled her creative energy into her craft. Then Arnold replied that he knew of some artists who make every part of themselves an expression of their art. From then on Burstyn began expressing her creativity through her appearance. This example is how Arnold had a gift to expand people’s existence by evoking their creative potential. The key to his success was his ability to work between the margins.
Steven Arnold is a queer mystic. Queer can have several connotations. In the 90s I remember the term queer being used to insult another man. Queer is more widely used and accepted today in academia and culturally within the LGBTQ community. The Q is queer. The term queer can refer to someone who identifies as gender non-binary or someone who is non-heterosexual.
A mystic is generally regarded as someone who transcends physical boundaries of consciousness to communicate with a deity, spirits, or a plane of reality beyond normal sense perception. Being queer and a mystic share a similar quality in that they both transgress normative boundaries, as well as transcend physical designations of identity. When a person makes such a transgression, social norms no longer apply. These people acquire a value system according to their mystical or queer identity and perception of reality. When society witnesses the behavior inspired by this otherworldly value system, there is a tendency to criticize and even persecute that “transgressor”. Another word you can call such a mystic would be, a visionary. Visionaries, especially in art, quite often are rejected until time passes and the institutions realize their genius. This is why they are described as being ahead of their time. These visionaries are who guide society forward. Strange that the future defies our present values.
Arnold was immersed in the counter culture, an era that deconstructed society by an adversity to discipline and structure. Audiences celebrated the lack of discipline and training that resulted in such entertaining impromptu performances by the Cockettes. But Arnold received a formal education at the San Francisco Art Institute and studied at the famed Ecole Des Beaux Arts in Paris. Similar to Dali who received a formal education at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in his formidable years, Arnold’s eccentric personality was cultivated within prestigious institutions. The saying, “You must learn the rules in order to break them,” certainly applies.
Mystics and shamans similarly use the formal institutions of religion and ritual to enter their personal experience of divinity. What mystics teach us is that a formal institution is just a space where we command our own spiritual experience. This principle is most obvious and available to the public through art. An artist can use art theory and techniques, but they are the one who commands the instruments and theory through their work. They might even expand upon the theory, or defy it and create a new one.
Steven Arnold created what he referred to as his own mythology. He used images of icons from various traditions, but never did he distinctly represent a particular religion or deity. He channeled his ideas through dreams and imagination. He is quoted:
Please don’t take me for granted – I’m a rare
Freak of nature and now is the time to appreciate
What I am saying to the Earth!
Sometimes when a person delivers a message to humankind, they place themselves in a position separate from humanity. It’s a sort of transcendence to be within an element, but not be of it. Klaus Nomi said that he came from outer space to save the human race. But Steven Arnold never claimed to be beyond the earth. Although he used the language of angels, he was deeply connected to the earth. He did not reject nature or this world, but rather his message of love was to connect people deeper with the responsibility and awareness of nature and each other.
The unique quality of those mystics who cross borders, who live by different value systems, who go against the grain of social norms, is that they inspire balance. They reveal dimension in our lives. They introduce perspectives that expand our perception of reality. They place value in things we take for granted. In the documentary, Ellen Burstyn commented that during the AIDS crisis, when the gay community was experiencing a holocaust, Arnold created for them a heaven, in which they were transformed into angels. This is the evidence of his mysticism. This was his miracle.
It took 28 years for this documentary to be produced. Vishnu Dass remarked that he was the third director to take on this project. The film went through its own mystical journey. And it seems that this is the apt time for Steven Arnold’s message to be heard. Society still has many steps ahead assimilating queer culture, but we are in a time when hearts and minds are more open to receiving his message and art. We are also in a time when Mother Nature is suffering. We are facing irreversible damage to this earth that might forever affect future generations. In dire times such as these, it’s easy to worry about the practical matters that need to be attended to in order to fix the problem. But in order to fix any problem, we need the will, the intelligence, and the creativity to inspire a resolution. These are the qualities of a visionary. This world needs visionaries like it’s never needed them before. The gift of Steven Arnold is the inspiration to become such a visionary. We can learn in our own way, according to our own capacity, according to our own position in this world, how to lead society forward. Steven Arnold created angels. An angel enacts the will of creation. Angels heal. Angels love. Angels can take something broken or a piece of trash and create a masterpiece from it. This world is full of garbage. Our ecosystem is nearly broken. But we can still create a masterpiece of art.
All images used with permission by the Steven Arnold Archives