Drag and Flamboyant Performance Art Are Like ‘Bread and Butter’ to Aerialist and Art History Scholar Jack Crawford

Ph.D. candidate Jack Crawford performing as an aerialist. (Photo credit: Adad Hannah)

Prior to COVID, when she wasn’t combing archives and watching avant-garde films for her doctoral dissertation on drag and other forms of flamboyant performance art, Ph.D. candidate Jack Crawford (Art History) was often either taking in those art forms at venues throughout New York or engaging in performance herself as an aerialist and an aerial teacher. 

“Burlesque performance and drag performance are my bread and butter, what I see as the most exciting kind of performance practices right now,” Crawford said. The shutdown of New York’s theaters during the pandemic has made the last year difficult for her. “Going to see performance as well as performing is a big part of my New York life. I've missed that terribly,” she said. 

Crawford, however, is still channeling her interest in drag and burlesque into her doctoral dissertation, Flamboyant Abundance: Performing Queer Maximalism, 1960–1990. She spoke to The Graduate Center about her dissertation, for which she won both a Luce/ACLS Dissertation Fellowship in American Art and a Graduate Center Dissertation Fellowship, and its significance for her personally, for fellow scholars, and for the public.  

The Graduate Center: The title of your dissertation includes the term “Queer Maximalism.” Can you explain what it means? 

Crawford: My interest is in looking at performance that really reads as over-the-top. And that means from the performance to the expression of the performers themselves as being particularly flamboyant. What I'm writing about is what that excess does and how it works. I found that kind of constellation of terms to be productive. By queer, I mean not just the identities of the artists, but also the way that they're working, that they're foregrounding non-normative gender and sexuality in their work.

The term maximalism also establishes a kind of relationship to minimalism, which is a key term within art history describing artwork created primarily in the ’60s. My goal is to look at, or to establish, this kind of artistic production as both different from that and also in conversation with it. 

I look at the way that performances are created, not just the process so much but the different compositional and formal elements, how they make up the work and how they both express that artist’s own social and political ideas and establish social and political relationships with the audience. So, establishing queer solidarity through references to camp or presenting non-normative gender that other folks in the audience really connect with and as something worthy of being on stage.

GC: What impact are you hoping your research will have?

Crawford: I have a couple of different goals. One is that by taking this really flamboyant work seriously my goal is to make a bid for it as art historically relevant. More broadly, my goal is to present a scholarly understanding of drag. That is a major facet of my project. And to understand and to essentially look at drag as a mode of performance with its own compositional logic. And to position that as a performance art genre that art history should be taking seriously. By looking historically at it as an art form, I think I can bring a little more context to our own historical moment as well. 

GC: Do you have a performance background?

Crawford: I did ballet for many years, but now my primary thing is that I am an aerialist and aerial teacher in New York. I wouldn't have ended up at this project if my friends and co- workers weren't the people who are the contemporary manifestation of what I'm writing about. I think my interest and passion for performance in general is in large part due to my own enjoyment of being onstage. I'm able to describe and to articulate what is compelling about performance because I feel a certain affinity with it and enjoy it in its place. 

GC: Who are some of the artists you study? 

Crawford: It's a lesser-known constellation of artists that I'm writing about. Jack Smith is a big figure for me. He's actually someone who's been receiving more and more recognition within art history and performance studies over the last several decades. He is most infamous for his film Flaming Creatures, which was censored in 1963. Susan Sontag was one of the people who wrote a passionate defense of the film. Warhol, to some extent, mostly people who worked with Warhol on a number of his films. I'm also writing about the San Francisco performance group the Cockettes. And Charles Ludlum is a big figure in my project.

My goal is that by focusing on an aesthetic rather than an individual I find the threads that connect these folks and their work. They start by being all over the place. Jack Smith is taking photographs, but he's also acting in films. And those films are being seen by composers and dancers and filmmakers, and everybody's borrowing from everybody. There's a lot of cross pollination between those communities. 

GC: Why did you choose to focus on the period from 1960 to 1990? 

Crawford: The anchoring elements of the timeline are really about what's going on in that art world rather than nationally. This tone that I'm tracing emerges in the ’60s, in part because of the specific vibes in Greenwich Village. In the early ’60s there's this kind of opening in the art world, this shift from being just a painter, or just a photographer to being an artist more broadly, and it's in that moment that the artists that I'm interested in are thriving. I would say that the kind of emergence of the underground film scene, and that coinciding with avant-garde dance are the two key elements of the early ’60s that drive this activity.

I've gotten a lot of questions about the relationship to the AIDS crisis, which I am addressing and where I'm ending the project. I am ending in the ’90s because the work and artists I'm writing about are dying, and also the work and the tone change. There's a change from this kind of over-the-top camp to anger. 

GC: You’ve received two fellowships to support your dissertation research. Any advice for students applying for grants? 

Crawford: I applied last year, unsuccessfully, for the ACLS grant. My project has developed a lot more since then. This sounds really corny, I guess, but present your project and what you are doing in a really straightforward way as opposed to trying to interpret what you think they're looking for. I think knowledge of what you want to do is the best first step for being able to write a successful proposal.

Submitted on: JUN 1, 2021

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