George Clinton: Dada Revolutionary – by Sharyll Burroughs

I recently read that the Dada art movement was an irreverent, rowdy revolution.  While there are plenty of thick, overly intellectualized tomes devoted to Dada, rowdy and irreverent will do just fine when describing the work of funk music legend and Dadaist George Clinton. The problem is that the art world doesn’t have a clue.

For over forty years, Clinton and his fraternal twins, Parliament-Funkadelic, or P-Funk, have served up a Dadaist stew melding psychedelic rock, jazz, r&b, and gospel into infectious grooves with humorous, nonsensical titles such as Funkentelechy, Good To Your Earhole, Gloryhallastoopid, and Loopzilla. Clinton’s oeuvre was radically out of step with the pop and soul music emanating from the airwaves in the 1970s and 80s. For example, Cosmic Slop and Maggot Brain reflected the madness to Clinton’s method: unmitigated rejection of logic, not only concerning music, but regarding the very meaning of art, a theory well within the Dadaist credo proclaiming logic as a form of creative suicide. Tristan Tzara, author of the Dada Manifestos and Lampisteries, expressed, “Nothing is more pleasant than to baffle people.”

Bootsy Collins (top left), Grady Thomas (3rd from left), George Clinton (4th from left), (bottom row) Calvin Simon, Ray Davis, Bernie Worrell, Fuzzy Haskins, Michael Hampton of the funk band “Parliament-Funkadelic” pose for a portrait in circa 1977.

According to Dr. Bradley Bailey, the Dada art movement began “as response to World War l, an event which a group of artists, writers, musicians, and other creative types regarded as signaling the end of an era dominated by reason…. Rather, these artists embraced the irrational as their guiding force….” Clinton fearlessly embraced the irrational in all things P-Funk. His willingness to obliterate the ordinary is evident in lyrics threaded together with loopy syntax and silly metaphors, as illustrated in his solo hit Atomic Dog: 

Yeah, this is a story of a famous dog

For the dog that chases its tail will be dizzy

These are clapping dogs, rhythmic dogs

Harmonic dogs, house dogs, street dogs

Dog of the world unite

Dancin’ dogs

Yeah

Countin’ dogs, funky dogs

Nasty dogs (Dog)

Atomic dog

Atomic dog

Like the boys

When they’re out there walkin’ the streets

May compete

Nothin’ but the dog in ya

Bow-wow-wow-yippie-yo-yippie-yeah

Bow-wow-yippie-yo-yippie-yeah

However, playful word games can distract from serious subtext. The intelligence behind Clinton’s lyrics often disappear beneath the grooves. Dadaist poet Hugo Ball said, “For us, art is not an end in itself, but it is an opportunity for the true perception and criticism of the times we live in.” Moreover, Dr. Bailey states, “While these artists questioned whether or not art has meaning, they never questioned whether art has purpose, since many used their work to make biting social or cultural statements.” 

Clinton’s keen observation skills produced plenty of opinions about society, race, politics, and capitalism. By annihilating illusions of a mighty, egalitarian America, he  Zen whacks us into an awareness that culture is not our friend. This excerpt from Eulogy and Light, from the Free Your Mind…and Your Ass Will Follow album, is a scathing indictment of capitalism which simultaneously scolds the Black community for accepting the systems in which the conditions of their oppression were created, while wryly illuminating the paradoxical nature of human experience:

Our father

Which art on Wall Street

Honored be thy buck

Thy kingdom came

This be thy year

From sea to shining sea

Thou givest me false pride

Funked down by the riverside

From every head and ass, may dollars flow

Give us this pay

Our daily bread

Forgive us our goofs

As we rob each other

He maketh me to sell dope to small children

For thou art evil

And we adore thee

Thy destruction and thy power

They comfort me

My Cadillac and my pinky ring

They restoreth me in thee

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of poverty

I must feel their envy

For I am loaded, high and all those other goodies

That go along with the good god big buck

Want to see culture and society as they really are, George asks? Stop trying to make sense of everything. Revel in contradiction because understanding is overrated. In a world that doesn’t make sense, dadaist’s make it even less so. The satirical masterpiece Chocolate City, or CC–whose thesis imposes a fresh “authentic” perspective onto Washington DC–is a ludicrous, maybe not so ridiculous rendering of who is actually in control of the government and the city. Black people didn’t get their forty acres and a mule, but remember, you don’t need the bullet when you’ve got the ballot. This is what power really looks like. Dream! Reach! It’s all good because fiction is really the truth.

P-Funk deals in uncut funk, funk that’s “The Bomb.” In my opinion, the bomb detonated when they took to the stage. Their live performances, especially during the 70’s, were unparalleled. No one, except fellow shapeshifter David Bowie, matched Clinton’s radical theatricality and outrageousness. Yes, the music was spectacular, but just as significant was how P-Funk’s farcical blueprint subverted the ways in which black performers behaved and dressed. The matching tailored suits and choreographed routines, a template Clinton adopted early in his career, were abandoned.  At some point he must have realized he’d stuffed himself into a tiny sequined box, a perception embodied in a quote from artist Marcel Duchamp, “I forced myself to contradict myself in order to avoid conforming to my own taste.”  Clinton certainly contradicted himself into several astounding transformations. The most memorable appeared in the mid-70’s. Adorned in 6-inch silver platform boots, bikini bottoms over glittery tights, and a long blond wig, he morphed into a debauched ringmaster directing his circus of glamazons, extraterrestrial clowns, and pseudo sheiks into a vortex of anarchy, a dimension where sartorial choices ran the gamut of diapers, Pinocchio noses, and massive sombreros made of fur. Deranged was the new norm–just because. Concerts ran 2 to 3 hours with as many as 20 people on stage, roaming about in various states of gyration through a marijuana fog so thick the audience got a contact high. And let’s not forget the Mothership (now housed within the hallowed halls of the Smithsonian), a faux spaceship carrying a race of Black “aliens”cloned by Dr. Funkenstein, another alter ego who symbolized a new species untethered from anything reeking of convention. Black, White, Red or Green: All subversives welcome. Don’t be afraid to push boundaries or look like a fool. Freedom is a state of mind. In Clinton’s riotous world, you are not naked when you take off your clothes. Just relax and enjoy the turbulence.

George Clinton has graced us with a scatalogical manifesto that will forever influence those looking to write one of their own. He broke all the rules. That’s what artists do. They break shit in order to reframe our inner solar systems, shift our realities. They pry our middle finger upward toward the sky. Hugo Ball asked “Why can’t a tree be called Pluplusch?” George Clinton asks “why can’t a tree be called Psychoalphadiscobetabioaquadoloop?” That my friends is what Dada is all about. Clinton is a visionary who deserves a place within the pantheon of Ball, Duchamp, and Ray. He should be acknowledged as a Dada revolutionary and recognized by the art world with nothing less than a major museum retrospective. They just need to free their minds and their asses will follow.

Sharyll Burroughs is a multidisciplinary artist and dialogue facilitator who is interested in exploring the meaning of identity beyond racial, cultural, or societal definitions. Her facilitation process combines Buddhist philosophy, the process of inquiry, and controversial or provocative art to reflect the multidimensionality of a common human experience. Burroughs attended the Santa Monica College of Design, Art, and Architecture, a school founded by MacArthur Genius Fellow, Joan Abrahamson.  Her work has been featured in solo and group exhibitions in Los Angeles, California and in Portland, Oregon. She has facilitated group dialogues for venues such as the Portland Art Museum.

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