MAILER: A god who can fail, a god who is opposed by his equal, a devil….
MADONNA: Yes, that I would like to relate to.
MAILER: Then can you accept the next notion: that we have a god and a devil within us?
MADONNA: Yes, thank you for reading my mind.
MAILER: And they war with each other and sometimes one wins, sometimes the other. One can’t know. Because the very nature of the devil is to disseminate ambiguity.
MADONNA: Well, I like the idea that God is in all of us, but to me, the ultimate form of prayer, if God is in each of us is to be kind to one another, and that is a form of prayer.
MAILER: Surely there are certain people you’re not going to be kind to; it would be a grave mistake. You have to believe there’s evil in the world.
MADONNA: I believe there’s evil, but from my point of view, I don’t believe I’m an evil person.
MAILER: No, but you’ve got a good deal of evil in you. How could you not?
MADONNA: I’m not saying I’m not in conflict with good and bad and I don’t struggle with things inside of me, but I’m saying that the way we relate to one another is how we pray.
In Truth or Dare, before going onstage in Detroit, she is standing with her cast in prayer.
MADONNA: Dear Lord, it seems that every time I’m standing here in this circle before the show, I’m asking you for something extra special. Well, I’m here again, and I’m begging you to give me a voice to sing with this evening, and the girls, too. This is my hometown, so I’m extra nervous, and even though it’s not supposed to matter, it does matter what they think. And so I ask you to give me that little extra something special to show everybody that I did make something out of my life. Amen. Have a good show!
A week or two later in New York, a few ugly feuds have developed in her cast, and the prayer now is different.
Shot of Madonna. Again she is standing in a circle with her dancers and the crew.
MADONNA: What I am worried about, and what I do want to say a prayer about, is the way people have been behaving. I don’t care what you did with your lives before you came on this tour, I don’t care what you do afterward; but while you’re working with me and you’re doing this now, you will treat everyone in this group with kindness, compassion, and respect. I don’t want to hear about it anymore. There’s too much pain in the world, and I want you to treat yourselves with kindness and respect. A lot of crazy shit has been happening, and we have to start looking out for each other; we have to start protecting each other. And we have to start loving ourselves a little bit more and loving the person standing next to us a little bit more. [Her voice breaks.] Amen. ALL [quietly]: Amen.
We could take leave of her here, but do we have any sense of the poisonous spirit of the world she entered after she left Detroit? Madonna would have been a star even if Andy Warhol had never existed, yet Warhol is the clue to seeing Madonna in perspective. If we would look to grasp what she aspires to and what she encountered in New York, it is worth musing on Warhol’s command of one particular gift—divination of social disease.
By the late middle of the twentieth century, human contempt for itself reached epic proportions. The recognition had come that we might be a species ready to finish ourselves by way of nuclear apocalypse. It was possible. Even without the atom bomb, the Second World War had left as a legacy the shadow of the concentration camps, and that darkened all belief that humankind was evolving into a more humane future. Then the cold war proceeded to erode those institutions of marriage, family, and property that for two hundred years had kept society—or so society believed—relatively stable but for peculiar times of armed conflict. That happy view of humankind had washed out to sea by the late Fifties, and in the Sixties, nothing made more sense to the average young man or woman than a prodigious absorption in oneself. That usually meant: Explore sex. The search for meaning translated into a search for pleasure. For if death was likely to present itself as nuclear termination arriving without warning, death was therefore absurd: Everyone destroyed more or less simultaneously, no grave, no ancestors, no roots, no memories of oneself.
The intensification of criminal life that drug traffic would provide still lay several decades away, but down the bleak vista of the cold war (which may yet be seen as a spiritual plague more pervasive, although less quickly fatal, than AIDS), Warhol must have been the first to gain keen insight into the pervasiveness of this plague. If its first symptom (buried under every hypocrisy of patriotism) was lack of respect for the human condition, Warhol perceived that as a corollary, there was going to be boundless if subterranean lack of respect for art. A painter could get away with more now than ever before! So Warhol, a mediocre draftsman, a colorist without his own palette, moved into the void. The emptiness of others was the barren field he would seed for a cash crop. He was a magician.
By now, Warhol is seen as a great artist even by people who do not profit directly from such an evaluation. Yet to think of him as an immortal American painter is to inspire the yaws. One need merely compare such sentiments with the pride of the Spanish and the French in Picasso or Matisse. No, Warhol’s real claim to fame was not as an artist, but as the philosopher of voids and silences. Before anyone else, he comprehended the vacuum of Western culture in the second half of the twentieth century “Authority,” Warhol could easily have said, if he had been inclined to give his secret away — “authority imprinted upon emptiness is money!” And he was right. The history of the last half of the twentieth century can be seen as a study in authority, money, and emptiness. The spiritual diorama of our time is the triumph of high-rise corporate architecture in every major city of the world, the proliferation of plastic into food and flesh, the presence of the homeless, AIDS, drug life, and now, in the aftermath of the cold war, ethnic cleansing, that corrosive purgative that looks to cure all the other ills, the first worldwide hint of a time to come when upturned heads will wait for a messiah with an authoritative voice. “I am the emptiness,” Warhol could as well have said. “I am the emptiness that prepares you for the message to come.” He is the maggot genius of American culture.
Madonna, born in 1958, young enough to have been Warhol’s daughter, was nonetheless reacting to the same void. But in drastically different fashion. She was, after all, like her generation, part of the horde of walking wounded. If nuclear fission would be the mortician to preside over her last rites, then, indeed, she would explore sex, and with an instinctive rebellion against all large hypocrisies. One did not have to be political to sense the vast fraud of the cold war — we had all been adjured to triumph over an Evil Empire that had turned out to be no more than a Sad Morass, at least for the last twenty years, a giant Third World quagmire buried in inefficiencies, bereft of desire for world domination. Our political leaders had converted language into cant, and our young — particularly those with good ears — reacted to the false note.
Yet if Madonna spoke to her generation, she was still condemned to explore herself. The explorations were chilling to some. In all the multimillion-dollar crops of her popularity, she was still without that hyperbolic popularity Marilyn Monroe gained in her own lifetime. Madonna was admired, but she was not loved. Not like Marilyn.
Our love for Marilyn is not complex. She was our movie star of the Fifties, but Marilyn spoke of a simpler time, the Thirties. It was to the Thirties that she belonged. She was three and a half years old at the end of 1929, and a young adolescent by the time 1940 arrived. Her smile goes back to such archetypes in our sentimental loyalties as the songs of the Thirties — “Let’s have another cup of coffee, and let’s have another piece of pie.” She would be valiant and loyal through our sorrows — so said the sweet welcome of her face. Marilyn’s horrors were kept within, and we mourn her because she gave it all to us and sacrificed herself until she was ridden with inner lividities and died.
Madonna is not only a survivor but has chosen, perhaps out of the necessity to survive, to take her kinks to the public: “You want to be with me, then come along for the f###ing cure.” She offers no balm to sweet, sore places; she is the stern instructor who shows us how difficult it all is, especially sex in its consummation. Yet she gives us something Marilyn never could, something less attractive but equally valuable; she dramatizes for us how dangerous is any human’s truth once we dare to explore it; she reminds us that the joys of life bed down on broken glass. She is not a lapsed Catholic for too little. Inter faeces et urinam, nascimur, she is always telling us, even if she never heard of Saint Odo of Cluny, but indeed it is true. “Between piss and shit are we born,” as the good saint told us, and the road to heaven, if you would find it, lies, by implication, between the two. Madonna comes to us as a bastard descendant of the void that Andy Warhol enshrined in the ice of his technique, but how she seeks to fill that empty space with her work!