“If you ask me what I came to do in this world, I, an artist, will answer you: I am here to live out loud.” —Émile Zola
Many, perhaps even "most" of the people I've met at milongas in the United States have no interest in or curiosity about Argentina. Not only have they no desire to ever go there, but they are often quite legimitately surprised when presented with the idea. What? Go to Buenos Aires? Why would I want to do that? And it's not just people who dance once a month. People who make a living teaching and performing what they call tango say exactly the same thing.
Most of the people I've met at milongas in the United States also have no interest in the music they're dancing to. They don't listen, they don't care, and it doesn't occur to them that they could learn Spanish and then they would know what the singers were actually saying and then their dance would have more meaning.
Someone who had actually made the twelve-thousand-mile round trip told me they loved tango but they didn't like Buenos Aires or Argentina. Someone else told me before my trip that if I went “looking for tango” I would be disappointed because it is only present in teeny well-buried snippets and you have to dig like you're on a treasure hunt, for which you may be rewarded with hidden scraps and nibbles.
People tell me tango is a tiny cult thing in a broad and complex culture the majority of whose constituents have nothing to do with it.
Yes. And I say: tango is the voice of Argentina.
I've known many people who love my work but don't feel similarly passionate about me as a person. And everyone I know has their preferences in my work, and they're all different. Some people are just on fire about my yoga pictures, and can leave the rest. Some people think I'm a writer first middle and last and the rest is, you know, whatever. Some people think one particular tango picture is the living end and the tango pictures in general are fantastic and everything else, meh. My work is my voice and my voice is me and I am always stunned when people think the two are separate entities or feel hugely different about some kinds of things I say over other things. They're all me.
If you say you "love" tango but you don't even like the world that produces it, or worse have no interest in even getting to know that world, you don't love tango. I say love is not admiring someone's ass as they walk by (or, taking the tango but leaving the people who made it). That's great and there's an important place for that in the world, but that's not love. I say love is a relationship of learning and growth and the deepening evolution of mutual understanding and discovery within Self and Other.
It's like the difference between loving a person and loving your idea of that person.
And fortunately, I did not go “looking for tango.” I went looking for whatever experience was going to unfold that could only happen down there, and I got it in spades, and as an added bonus, tango was as omnipresent in the air there as wifi is here. Every moment of every day, every street and every tree, every bum and every strap-hanger on the subway was built entirely of tango, all the way through. They didn't know it, and they didn't have to. “L'etat, c'est moi.”
Anyone who says, “this is what tango is” is wrong no matter what they say, but...this is what tango is.
Tango is Messi, the golden boy, the one who made it and became an international star and the hope of the people.
Tango is Evita, who by all first-hand accounts was a hyperfocussed workaholic who struck people by just how sexy she...wasn't.
Tango is the government setting up a system that takes just enough care of people who would otherwise be homeless that they understand they would be hugely financially and energetically penalized if they actually
The roots, the present, the struggle, the defeated look in people's eyes, the round butt of a girl on an escalator. Art Nouveau buildings with soot-covered caryatids and baby trees sprouting out of their broken stone-work. Tango is anti-Jewish hate graffitti on the sidewalk, sweet crisp golden-brown medialunas de grasa with succulent insides, outpourings of warmth and human connection at a family birthday party, and handmade shoes that fit like silken skins that make love to your feet. Tango is endless strikes closing hospitals, closing roads, closing shops, closing work, closing everything, and then ending having changed absolutely nothing. Tango is money laundering that builds new skyscrapers, and children juggling for moneda de cobre in the subway.
Tango is a table straining under the weight of a thousand little white dishes full of everything that's most delicious to eat with a bloody, salty, juicy steak. Tango is poor mothers giving their hungry children mate or café con leche because they're appetite suppressants. Tango is the streets of Buenos Aires stuffed with five million iterations of the same candy shop selling the same cheap sugary candy at every hand. Tango is growing up with never enough food, with never enough of anything.
It's people being, not doing. It's flying into Ezeiza and noticing that there's a whole lot of nothing in that big, big country, huge expanses of nothing, a zillion miles away from everyone else. Tango is trying not to get your leg broken on the ragged-tooth sidewalks, it's watching Australian tv dubbed into Spanish, it's people getting seriously jiggy to Elvis Presley, it's President Cristina screwing the country over yet again. It's everybody dressing the same in public, all the time. It's deteriorating Catholic churches and gomina and babies at the playground and sharing mate.
It is everything that got us to where we are today. Frozen beef and wheat sent to Britain, the ghost of Harrod's still there downtown, mining for silver, musicians avoiding gunfire in saloons, and chain-smoking teenagers migrating to the Big Apple and playing the piano in brothels.
Every tango, every vals, and every milonga is a sentence whose composition, tone, and diction is an autobiography of every ounce of Argentina's past and present. And, since history repeats itself, probably its future too. To say you love the story but not the author means you haven't heard a word they're saying.
Despite what people told me, tango is not some precious historical relic from the 30s and 40s poking its nose out amongst the big bad modern city of Buenos Aires like the cobblestone streets that occasionally surface past the asphalt. Tango is the unhidden heart of a culture whose great strength lies in unhiding its heart.
The pu-pu platter approach doesn't just strike me as misguided, it also strikes me as very estadosunidenso. I'll take this but not this, I'll reveal this but not that, I like this but hold the dressing. People live their lives like that here and are used to custom-ordering everything just the way they like it. But in Argentina nothing is just the way you like it! It is what it is. And people are similarly integral. You get the whole person on a plate, their past, their heart, their bleeding soul, their dark side, their comfy shallow side, and their sandwich preferences, every time. They unhide their hearts, they open up their souls like wardrobes and share with you every single thing that lies inside, in every moment, and they don't even do it consciously. It's a cultural thing. They wouldn't know how to live any other way—and probably wouldn't understand why you would bother to do so. You want me? This is me, all the way through. Everything. Every time.
Perhaps the creative act of editing is what confuses some people into thinking they love tango when they clearly cannot, because they do not love the warts-and-all culture behind it. When we craft sentences, we choose what words to use. When we speak, we have at least some control over our pitch, our accent, and our mannerisms. By deciding how we want to share our stories, we consciously create selectively sculpted versions of reality. Perhaps some people fall for the sculpture who would not care for the raw material.
I know it's true in my life. There's at least one someone out there who vociferously loves my pictures but clearly feels tepid and even indifferent about me as a human being. I draw with my own blood (you didn't know India ink ran through my veins, did you), that's my naked soul right there in every stroke. My pictures are me. Love my work, love me.
And yet at the same time, they are not me. They are my voice, and I decide what I'm going to say and how I want to say it. There are some really glaring silences in my body of work...silences that would make a sharp-eyed curator who knew my life's story ask, “why are there no pictures of this?”
Well...I don't share everything! And tango does not share everything either.
But if you are very clever you should be able to infer the whole autobiography from a single sentence. And if you truly love a voice, it's because, most of all, you love its creator.