Art historian and curator Lowery Stokes Sims has called William Pope L. “the Poet Laureate of male performance artists.” Pope L., who is African American, was raised in Newark, New Jersey by a single mother who was an alcoholic and drug addict, formidable odds against his becoming one of America’s foremost artists. His last name melds his father’s surname with his mother’s initial L, for Lancaster.
Most of the essays in the Simple Reality books are meant to be provocative and even the dictionary has a profound insight related to being annoyed by such incitements. “You should remain calm and not respond to provocation.” Changing the word “respond” to “react” and we have advice typical of our most respected sages over the last 3,000 years of human history.
When asked by interviewer Megan O’Grady if he was a provocateur, Pope L. said that he wasn’t but then reconsidered. “Maybe there is a kind of strategic use to provocation. People are so dulled by what they have to put themselves through to get through the day, maybe you do have to mess with them.” Let’s continue “messing with” our “dulled” fellow citizens.
Many artists refrain from explaining the meaning of their art and indeed some say it has no meaning separate from that projected onto it by the viewer. Performance art can challenge even the most open-minded spectators. For example, in the 1970’s, Pope L. began a series of what looked to be agonizing “crawls” in New York. He would lie down and drag himself down busy streets, including the entire length of Broadway in Manhattan, dressed in a business suit or a Superman costume. Others would sometimes join him in doing what over time amounted to forty group or solo crawls. These punishing demonstrations made it necessary for him to have several vertebrae fused.
Pope L. has also expressed his vision for art in producing theatre, pop art, sound art, short stories, collage and videos. In the early 1990’s he produced Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play “A Raisin in the Sun.” He cast both white and black actors as family members.
“In 1997, after New York outlawed aggressive panhandling near A.T.M.’s, the artist used an eight-foot long chain of Italian sausages to tie himself to a Chase A.T.M. in midtown Manhattan wearing a skirt of $1 bills to cover his lower half.”
Echoing Nisargadatta Maharaj’s radical prerequisites for “enlightenment,” namely, have nothing, do nothing and know nothing, Pope L. directs attention away from himself to have the audience focus on the work and not the artist. He urged his audience to look at the Routledge International Handbook of Ignorance Studies, which “looks at the growing interdisciplinary field that explores the social and political impact of ‘not knowing.’”
There is little doubt that the human community could use more than a little provocation to rouse us from our deep sleep. On a recent visit to Flint, Michigan Pope L. visited the Greater Holy Temple Church which doubles as a water crisis help center managed by his aunt Sandra Jones. Speaking about growing up in the welfare system he could be just as well speaking of the human condition in the global village. “There was a lot of not wanting to look at your condition—and nobody else wants to look at it, so there’s a lot of isolation. There’s blindness there too, because back then I only thought black people did welfare. But everybody is hiding stuff.”
Perhaps that is one meaning of Pope L.’s art. If we continue to hide from our fear-driven anxiety; if we continue to see the other in our neighbors; if we continue to refuse to listen to our deeper inner-promptings about our own power to create and heal, then maybe we do need more provocateurs.
References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry.