Good art is .. the unapologetic Lou Reed

We arrived at Judith Butler in the final weeks of the Modern and the Postmodern and there is something bitterly sweet today reading about Lou Reed’s life. 

There is so much in Reed’s life as a musician and artist to reflect on. 

And there is much in Butler’s work too which may explain what propelled Reed to forge a career in music and to tear at the skin of art in the process. 

Lou Reed

Lou Reed

In a single paragraph of the generous article in The Age today* I was shocked to see ‘incarcerated’, ‘bisexual’ and ‘electrotherapy’ which were all attributed to or experienced by Reed in his teens.

Butler proposes that gender is an aspect of our lives which is constantly performed and one which society seeks to normalise. We can look around and see how this is played out around us. However she also describes gender as being performative, that is, the behaviour we produce which expresses our gender has an effect on others and that we (society) perceive this gender expression to look at our own normative behaviour.  

Just as gender – or its interpretation – produces effects in other people, Butler further describes how gender is created and redefined over and over through this constant performance and observation of behaviours.

Butler asks ‘What is the consequence of a boy who ‘is sissy’ or a girl who is a ‘tomboy’? Who, she asks, will take the view of the social norm and who might go so far to seek to ‘correct’ the behaviour to bring the expression of gender back to within a societal ‘norm’?
Here Butler crosses into Foucault’s territory – she sees that parents or other external institutions could go so far as to seek a psychiatrist for such gender variance. Here she says, So there are institutional powers like psychiatric normalization and there are informal kinds of practices like bullying which try to keep us in our gendered place.’

So Butler’s description of the unsettling reactions toward people who display some non-conformity in their gender – bullying, segregation, possibly violence – were actually borne out in Lou Reed’s experience. While Butler suggests this is happening in a social context, she describes a level of personal freedom still embodied in difference which Reed once again personified in his rejection of accepted ideas of style, musicality and personal expression. 


When my brothers gave me a Lou Reed CD many years ago I wasn’t sure what they were trying to say. I was too young to be ready for real art let alone dark ideas and hard truths. Yet today I felt a tangible hollow sadness in Lou Reed’s death. Many commentators have agreed that, like those before him who held up shards of a mirror to show the conformity of society for the sham it is, his legacy will continue for as long as music can be played and heard.

Butler’s short piece on

 Foucault’s references are taken from Madness and Civilization.

*by generous I mean the article was a respectful 1000 words plus and was written by a writer for a newspaper reader rather than a news feed.
(Thanks Fairfax for that))

*I’ll add the link if the article’s online tomorrow 

Image and further words on


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