by dennard tyler dayle
I'd like to thank the Princeton University Trustees for inviting me to speak. I'm not sure why they've done that, and hope they don’t come to regret it. This is the first time I've been in this lecture hall without a hangover.
I had a lecture about Neal Stephenson prepared. Then I read the program and discovered that this weekend's theme is “Women of Color in the Visual Arts.” I might love Cryptonomicon, but I don't have the charisma to convince you he fits that niche.
So let's talk about Philomena Diaz, the woman that brought professional wrestling to the world of high art. Or high art to professional wrestling. The arc of her career should be of interest to the Princeton brand of artist, and has lessons for the half of the room that doesn't end up working at Goldman Sachs.
Philomena, the youngest daughter of two accountants, grew up with a single goal: to work as far from spreadsheets as humanly possible. So she attended the School of Visual Arts, joining one of the most prestigious—i.e., expensive—fine arts programs around. I believe they're still using her photo in the “diversity” section of the admitted student's brochure.
In her sophomore year, Philomena fell in love with the idealized physiques of Greek statues and Renaissance paintings. Towering, perfectly-toned men and women became her signature. This chafed with her pockmarked volunteer models and the SVA faculty, who wanted her to “render the world as she saw it.” When she contended that this was how she saw the world, her GPA declined to a 2.2. Which was, mercifully, just high enough to graduate.
It was the fashion of the moment. Today, she would be critiqued for not going far enough from reality. Tomorrow, she might even be in style. I pulled that insight from her autobiography, which is a good read if you can get past the extended metaphors and digressions about food. Chapter six devotes equal time to her mid-semester depression and reviews of West Village take-out options.
So far, Philomena might have struck you as a type of romantic rebel. But the borderline-failing grade on her resume taught her the value of conformity. Her first and only gallery exhibit consisted of sixteen portraits of “real Americans,” flab, moles and all. These were lambasted as uninspired. Which they were, a point underlined by naming the exhibit “Real America.” Always avoid sharing creative ground with Republican governors.
Her autobiography, Ringside Easel, says she spent the next two years traveling across Europe. But a deprecated LinkedIn page indicates that she worked for a temp agency in Newark. Either way, Philomena left the art scene behind. In her words, “New York taught me that diversity of color does not guarantee diversity of thought.”
Philomena didn't touch a brush in that time. The business of exploring the world—or adjusting spreadsheets—occupied her until 2003. During a visit to her childhood home in Hartford, she found her father had become an avid viewer of Attitude-era RAW. He called it “A window into the American mind.” Philomena laughed at that. She'd been in New York long enough to pick up a bit of high-culture pride, and the sardonic derision that passes for confidence. Then she watched Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson perform his signature Rock Bottom technique on “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. Something clicked.
She quietly sketched the climax of the match. The Rock’s elbow struck Stone Cold’s core, sending the World Heavyweight Champion into exaggerated convulsions of pain. It was the first of twenty portraits of “WWE Titans” she would produce in the next month. To Philomena, the draw wasn't the narrative, technique, or homoeroticism. It was the glory. In art school terms, the two athletes captivated a tightly-packed arena of worshipers by becoming broad caricatures of human aggression. In more basic terms, she thought it looked cool as hell.
There's something to her father's insight about our once-thriving country. It's no coincidence that the United States houses the largest wrestling promotion in the world. Japan and Mexico share some of the high-grade insanity that allows wrestling to thrive, but Americans have hosted seventy years of enthusiastic nuclear testing. No society can absorb that much radiation and remain stable. Mock combat is, in my opinion, a vital outlet for the energy of a crazed population. There's a non-zero correlation between dips in WWE ratings and Republican adventures in the Middle East. For containing some portion of the American impulse for violence, Vince McMahon deserves a Nobel. But I digress.
After his fourth beer, Philomena's father demanded to keep her sketch of The Rock, later titled “Mountain in Bloom.” He taped it to a cardboard sign and carried it to a live recording of Big Show fighting someone smaller than Big Show. Signs are one of the primary modes of interaction between live audiences and wrestlers—the others are shouting and lobbing objects at the stage. But the signs are a bit more unique. They showcase the wit and opinions of the fanbase, which range from the supportive but bland “Stone Cold, Bitch” to the creatively subversive “Roman Reigns is a Holocaust Denier.” A creative or well-made sign will hover onscreen for at least a moment, and often recur in establishing shots throughout the match.
You can imagine the producers' surprise when a virtuoso rendition of a Rock Bottom appeared in the cheap seats. The Rock is by no means a bad-looking man, but here he looked like a demigod. Repeated shots of the sign obscured some of the match itself, testing the patience of pay-per-view viewers. But Vince McMahon could smell money, and quietly had his most polite goons drag Mr. Diaz backstage. There, Vince discovered that Philomena Diaz had uploaded five paintings of The Rock to her personal site. Most of the visitor comments were from Mr. Diaz, though her mother also occasionally left something encouraging.
When she received her letter from WWE management, Philomena expected something to the effect of “Cease and Desist.” Her Sports Illustrated—that's not a pun—interview describes seeing the logo on the envelope's corner as the most terrifying moment of her adult life. In this, she was rational: no artist should underestimate the vindictive fury of an American corporation. Philomena Diaz is one of the few artists to find a job offer inside instead of a lawsuit.
The McMahons offered her a simple freelance contract. If she accepted, she would produce one painting of a WWE superstar a week. If she rejected it, she would be sued. For Philomena, the carrot was enough to ignore the stick. Someone was willing to pay for her vision of the world. The WWE Universe didn't have the cultural cachet of the gallery circuit, but her work would be seen. Philomena signed in her best imitation of cursive.
Philomena’s first commission was something of a failure. It’s hard to imagine a dull painting of a man that calls himself The Undertaker, but her portrait of him sitting in an art studio holding a bowl of fruit was very, well, typical. Instead of settling for an easy check, Philomena called it “practice” and made a second attempt. This time she eschewed standard modeling methods and drew her outlines from the ringside of a steel cage match. Everything about The Undertaker that looked flat after their six-hour modeling session came alive. Today, “Charon’s Uppercut” can be purchased on a t-shirt for 16.99.
In time, Philomena began working in allusions to her own heroes. For instance, her rendition of the 2007 Royal Rumble is a clear reference to Raphael’s The School of Athens. The fresco’s books and beards are simply replaced with chairs and leotards. It’s worth noting that she gives Rey Mysterio Socrates’ position and pose. Since she rarely chose her subjects, any hint towards her preferences stands out.
For all the horror it’s wrought on our political system, the information age has made it easy for members of the same fringe to find each other. The intersection between art aficionados and WWE superfans is marginal. But every member of that niche is a diehard fan of Philomena Diaz. While McMahon only hoped to sell kitschy baroque-style t-shirts and baseball caps, Philomena’s originals quickly became collector’s items. For reference, the current auction for “The Liberation of SmackDown,” a Michelangelo-influenced image of John Cena powerbombing AJ Styles through a table, is set at twenty-five thousand dollars. As you can imagine, Philomena is no longer temping.
At the peak of her visibility, Philomena received a letter from her old thesis advisor. Six years of consuming idealistic John Cena storylines led her to expect congratulations, or even an apology. Instead, she found two pages lambasting her as “The worst breed of sell out.” To quote the last paragraph: “You’ve dedicated the finest arts education in America to the company that invented crotch chopping.”
Today, that letter is framed in her office. It sits beside similar letters from classmates, printouts of think-pieces about “corporate appropriation of art culture,” and her framed SVA transcript. On her Instagram, she calls this collection “The Forest of Salt.” That also happens to be the name of an upcoming SmackDown pay-per-view.
Her best work—at least, according to the amateur critics on the “Squared Circle” wrestling subreddit—is a portrait of The Miz between matches. The painting shows him hunched over in the locker room, wearing nothing but a worn black towel knotted around his waist. His torso is covered in every manner of bruise, and thick red cut is uncomfortably close to his left eyelid. The blood causes some of his makeup to run. In the face of all this injury, The Miz smiles like a child. He considers a few moments of pain and mortal peril worthwhile if the public is entertained. This painting, more than any portrait of a finisher, manager, or audience, captures the spirit of professional wrestling.
God, half of you are asleep. Don't worry, I'm almost done.
My point is not to go home and binge SmackDown videos. Spicing up your brunch chats with references to DDTs and chokeslams won't make you brighter, more inclusive people. Besides, the WWE product has already been embraced by nimbler pseudo-intellectuals from smaller colleges. If you need a fresh corner of mass culture to scavenge, consider watching New Japan Pro Wrestling, or Lucha Underground. They have a zombie that gets stronger every time he dies.
Think beyond wrestling. Think of how closing yourself off to new possibilities makes you a poorer person, a poorer artist, and intolerable at parties. Or, at the very least, think of how being myopic heels can make you miss opportunities to make buckets full of money. That's the Princeton motto, isn't it? Princeton in the company's service, and service of all companies? The bottom line you save might be your own.
Dennard Tyler Dayle is a Brooklyn-based advertising, fiction, and essay writer. His writing's appeared in McSweeney's Internet Tendency, The Hard Times, Matchbook, POSTblank, and various other websites and journals. He also writes comedy on his personal site See More Evil, including recent series of viral MTA parodies. Dayle currently works as an ad agency copywriter, and has a bachelor's in English from Princeton University and Creative Writing from Columbia University.