I loved the letter you wrote about your recent weekend combination of ArtWalk and “Connect the Dots” event, designed to help raise people’s consciousness about global warming and its effects on life on earth. It’s a very serious topic — what could be more serious? — but at the same time, if it is only approached from the point of view of super-seriousness, then people are easily turned off. It is, in fact, by definition almost an overwhelming topic, one that’s both crushing and devastating.
All that to say I thought your were right to inject a “clown person” into the mix. The whole idea of clowns is, in fact, an interesting topic in itself. It makes me think, for example, of the many ways that traditional American Indians incorporated clowns into some of their most sacred ceremonials. I think that when non-Indians first saw this they were shocked and put off, even a little appalled. The Western idea of the sacred seems to have no room for any kind of levity in it. Which is odd, isn’t it? I mean, who says that God has no sense of humor? Anyway, I was surprised myself, I have to admit, when I first came to understand that clowns were an integral part of some of the most sacred AmerIndian ceremonials. I wondered for a while why that might be. Finally, it began to dawn on me that there were lots of reasons, and no doubt I only understand some of them.
One of the things that occurred to me has to do with what I think of just as a lightening of the mood. The “sacred” sounds awfully serious, and I suppose in a way it is. Some people even find it frightening, especially when dance and masks are involved, and the playing of the drum, that mimicking of the heartbeat in all of us. But people feel a bit of a load taken from their shoulders when the clowns arrive and they start making fun of everything — of themselves, of the people standing around watching, and even of the very ceremonials they’re part of. They seem to have this ability to speak to people at some very basic, almost pre-cognitive level, and to say that it’s alright, it’s a good thing, to laugh in the face of that which is most serious, in the face of danger, maybe even in the face of death itself. This, in turn, reminds me too of your wonderful painting “Leonard Says That Some Things in Life Are Serious, But Everything Is Funny,” which you included a photo of attached to your letter.
One of the other roles that clowns take on in some of these ceremonials is to, in a sense, turn things upside down. If the ceremony takes place in the summer, they might appear in full winter gear; and if it’s freezing out, they’ll dance around in very little clothing, complaining to everyone around about how hot it is. It always seemed to me that this has something to do with realizing that our expectations about how things are, or how they should be, are so often not necessarily the case. In other words, for example, you can pray to all the gods for an answer about some question or problem, and you will get an answer, but that answer may be very different from what you thought it would or should be. It’s a way of getting out of our head and into some other place that is open to the unexpected and the magical. It’s a way of saying: “Surprise me! I want to laugh and to wonder. I want to be amazed!”
Your clown persona incorporated all of these things, I think, and a bunch more that I’m not clever enough to understand. But it seemed to me that you played the “adult-child” in order to contribute to the opening of people’s hearts (not just their minds) in a way that was funny and enjoyable. I saw people laughing in the photos, and it’s good to laugh. Even when things are serious. Especially when things are serious.
So, congratulations to “Pretty Pretty Snowflake” on his clowning about matters that matter. In the realm of ritual and mythology, you come from a long, long line of such clown people. As Leonard wisely said to us many years ago, somethings really are very serious, but in the end everything’s pretty damed funny.