She recalled the condemnation she received from female critics early in her career, and admonished women to unite. “We have to stick together, support one another,” she said, echoing the sentiments of her recent Billboard Woman of the Year Award acceptance speech, in which she spoke out against the misogyny she has encountered all her life, and confided to her audience, and the world, that she had been raped during those early years in New York.
Among the muses that helped her get through that period of her life, she said, were the visionary writer and activist James Baldwin, dancer and choreographer Martha Graham, and artist and feminist icon
, images of whom she plastered on the walls of her Lower East Side apartment back then.
The position of New York as a long-standing sanctuary for creatives—“people who were freaks,” Alexander said—was a common thread among all of the speakers.
“I was so supercharged with the energy of New York,” Madonna said, noting that she was also motivated to persevere with her creative career in New York by the prospect of having to return to the provincial world of her upbringing in Michigan. She was fueled, too, by criticism of her work, which forced her to cultivate a strong sense of self-belief. She advised young artists to be “concerned and consumed with what you have to say to the world and not with what others say about you.”
Absent from the conversation was much dialogue around a video work made by Madonna that was screened at the beginning of the event. The piece opens with James Baldwin speaking about the African-American experience, and leads into footage of Madonna and performers in a cage-cum-burlesque underworld of sex and violence, in which the artist at various points plays the victim and the perpetrator of gunshots and obscenity.
It’s overlaid with music and with Madonna’s voice, and culminates in her call for something like a revolution of radical non-conformism. “Having your own opinion and not giving a damn what people say,” as Madonna urged the audience at the Brooklyn Museum, seems to be the message. The result is somewhat confused, and problematic in its integration of messaging around female and racial persecution.
But in person, Madonna’s vision was clear. “We have two choices: destruction and creation,” she said. “I’m going down the road of creation, and you’re all welcome to join me.” Alexander, meanwhile, reminded us that we have come a long way, and invoked the experience of women of color, in particular, who have risen from unimaginable oppression and trauma. She called on some advice she’d received from a relative: “Harriet Tubman figured it out, so y’all need to figure it out.”