During her performance of “ Swine” at the SXSW Conference in Dallas, Lady Gaga wasn’t in the spotlight. Instead, all eyes seemed to be on Millie Brown: the “vomit artist” who made a revolting show out of intentionally throwing up on Lady Gaga twice.
The YouTube video of this performance begins as normally as a Lady Gaga performance can, with the performer drumming and singing and Brown dancing demurely at the side of the stage. Eventually, Brown adds some sass to her act by straightening up and slowly drawing a one-liter bottle of lime-green milk to her lips. Brown then struts over towards the drum set, wiggles two manicured fingers down her throat, and throws up on Lady Gaga, who continues drumming energetically as if nothing has happened.
This spectacle raises questions about whether there’s such a thing as going too far when bending performing arts standards. Brown has been criticized for glamorizing bulimia, for risking her health, for allowing other people to see and imitate what she does.
In one of her tweets, reposted on People. com, Brown promotes the absence of limits in self-expression and writes, “If art is your communication it should not be censored.” She embraces the controversy and the intense reactions that her performances bring.
Certainly, the boundaries of what is considered art should be as wide as possible, because artists express themselves in ways that range from the traditional to the unusual. Engaging in such forms of self-expression can be empowering for people. But does that empowerment benefit people other than the artists themselves? What impact does art have on those who consume it?
I’ve heard Millie Brown’s argument that her art form doesn’t glamorize bulimia, and that some people are bound to be unhappy with her manner of self-expression. She also thinks that art is meant to have a shock factor.
But Brown casts a blind eye to the fact that vomiting neon-colored soy milk onto people, which she argues is “raw and primal” self-expression, shouldn’t come at the cost of her audience’s emotional and mental comfort.
The fact that this isn’t her priority, however, reveals Brown’s selfish approach to practicing art. Along with the empowerment and innovation that comes with Brown’s art form, the viewer’s experience of it matters as well. And that’s a factor that Brown needs to consider.