ONE OF MY COLLEAGUES once compared listening to a lecture by the great art historian T. J. Clark to being taken for a drive on a warm sunny day. The car roof is down, the wind is blowing in your hair, the driver knows where he’s going, and the journey is sheer pleasure. The lecture-performance, by contrast, is often another matter. John Cage’s Lecture on Nothing, 1949, arguably the first example of the genre, is the opposite of a smooth cruise in a convertible. With a repetitive structure and self-reflexive content, it’s more like circling around the parking lot until you run out of gas.
Since Cage, lecture-performances have taken many forms, but all incline toward stripped-down staging, mimicking the technological frugality of the academic conference. In the twenty-first century, the genre got more sophisticated (think of Walid Raad’s PowerPoint wizardry) and stretched the limits of artistic license. In the hands of Andrea Fraser, Xavier Le Roy, and others, the lecture-performance has been mobilized to question the production of discourse, raze academic hierarchies, and embody knowledge (or a lack thereof).
Of the many lecture-performances I’ve seen over the past twenty years, few have been as exhilarating as Honor, an Artist Lecture by Suzanne Bocanegra Starring Lili Taylor, 2022. Performed last February in the Grace Rainey Rogers auditorium at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it was the first public lecture I’d attended since the pandemic began: a return to the ritual of sitting in darkness, looking at pictures, being taken for a drive. This time, however, the images were projected at a huge scale and the talking was outsourced to a charismatic professional, the actor Lili Taylor.
Bocanegra has been hiring actors to do her “artist’s talks” since 2010—there have been four to date. Previous vessels include Paul Lazar and Frances McDormand. The artist likes using actors because they are trained to tell stories; their ability to confidently charm an audience is a bonus.
For the duration of Honor, Taylor stood front and center in the spotlight, her twinkly, enthusiastic delivery offset by a formal black pantsuit. Bocanegra, however, wasn’t absent but remained visible at stage right, sitting at a desk, feeding Taylor her lines through a mic that connected to an earpiece worn by the actor. It’s a technique used by Elizabeth LeCompte, director of the Wooster Group, to destabilize her actors and make their performances feel less rehearsed. For Bocanegra, by contrast, it’s a way to cut down on rehearsal time. Yet despite the limited preparation, the results weren’t remotely bumpy.
In Taylor’s capable hands, we sank into the pleasure of one tall tale and oddball observation after another, all laced into a mesh of visual juxtapositions that took its lead from an enormous sixteenth-century tapestry, Honor, designed by the Flemish artist Bernard van Orley and acquired by the Met in 2015. The work depicts sixty-nine men and women arranged in an intensely busy theatrical tableau. Honorable folks populate the top rows (women from the Bible and Greek mythology, allegorical figures like Virtue and Victory, assorted male rulers of yore, all presided over by Honor as a monarch), while a dishonorable mob (Mark Antony, Holofernes, Sardanapalus) is arrayed along the bottom.
The lecture began somewhat historically, tracing the lives of Cardinal Erard de la Marck, who owned the tapestry, and Juan Luis Vives, the eccentric Spanish humanist who probably conceptualized the erudite visual scheme. But from then on, it was a transhistorical smorgasbord verging on late-night internet rabbit hole. We heard about the nitty-gritty of weaving and were treated to grim vignettes of sixteenth-century life: expensive wars (tapestries were mobile status symbols), plagues, witch trials, the Inquisition. The gruesome truth behind Hansel and Gretel was revealed (forget candy houses—it’s actually about cannibalism), and two opposing modes of early-modern performance were elucidated: “joyous entries” (conferring honor through ceremonial processions with arches, stages, and tableaux vivants) and public executions (the ultimate dishonor).
At some point, the twentieth century came to dominate: the invention of Renaissance Faires, with their kooky homemade costumes; Carole King’s album Tapestry; the Pageant of the Masters staged by California’s Festival of the Arts of Laguna Beach, in which amateur actors re-create famous works of art; the humiliating inauthenticity of the Monkees, a band with two actors as lead singers; DIY crafts of the 1970s; the Girl Scouts (the badges are mini-tapestries); the Texas Rose Festival and its ludicrous female allegories. We zigzagged through time and place at what felt like breakneck speed.
I must admit that, about forty minutes and several hundred images in, I started to panic. The connections seemed infinite, and there was no sign of a conclusion on the horizon. Gradually, however, themes began to emerge and then, artfully, to come full circle: gender and craft, performance and still image, abstraction and personification, honor and shame. One particularly poignant thread concerned Bocanegra’s late mother, whose presence stitched together several anecdotes.
The finale was breathtaking and euphoric: Taylor finished talking, the projection faded, and the scrim went up to reveal an eight-person tableau vivant singing the sixteenth-century Spanish hit “Ríu, Ríu, Chíu.” After all that cognitive intake, the sensuous immediacy of pure voices was overwhelming. It crystallized another of the lecture’s overarching themes: the tension between illusion and reality, performance and authenticity.
Honor was peak lecture-performance in the age of the internet: hundreds of images and deftly intertwined stories that romp through time, inserting the personal into a broader cultural history with precision and wit. Seeing it made me want to lecture more and better, and to take a risk on wild connections. Importantly, Honor rose above the notion of artistic research as a process of stochastic surfing and aggregation. What it offered was a feminist unraveling of honor through accessible autotheory. Auto, defined slightly differently, brings us back to my initial comments. Full of great vistas and amusing aperçus, this drive left T. J. Clark in a cloud of dust.
Claire Bishop is a contributing editor of Artforum.