09 June 2010

Abramović redux

Not long ago I wrote a couple of posts prompted by a review by Arthur Danto of a piece that was a central part of a recent MOMA show re: performance artist Marina Abramović. As I mentioned in the earlier posts, I usually find Danto insightful and interesting. In this case, though, I was more than a little flummoxed. Danto now has published a brief follow up to his initial essay; you can find it here. What follows are some of the interesting bits:
"In 1964, Andy Warhol exhibited wooden facsimiles of shipping cartons. A work of art and a mere shipping carton can look exactly alike. What explains the difference? What is the difference between sitting down with someone in a performance and merely sitting down with someone? The work of art has meaning; it is about something. And it embodies that meaning.

Many people thought that Marina Abramovic’s act of sitting across from them was a case of the emperor’s new clothes. But for most who sat with her, the act was fraught with meaning. It was in a sense a sacrifice on the artist’s part, an ordeal, an immense favor conferred on those who sat with her.

[. . .]

Think of the title of Marina’s show, “The Artist is Present.” And what presence means. The sitters are honored to be in the presence of the artist. It is a ritual moment, and understood as such by their own ordeal of waiting. The woman who sat for the entire period (seven hours) tried to make the presence hers. The next day Marina was present but the woman who sought her presence was gone. Marina’s presence was a treasure that could only be conferred. These are some of the hermeneutical aspects that the artist understood, and sitters mainly acknowledged. Think of all the photographs that shows tears in their eyes! People will discuss this event for years. It was a moment of spiritual exchange. How many of those do we have in a life?

[. . .]

The spiritual wiring of the human soul remains to be diagrammed. That is what art is for."
So here is what I think the crux of the matter is for me. As Danto makes clear in these passages, and what I complained about earlier, this "sitting" was passive for the viewers - an "act" of homage, an experience of being orchestrated or choreographed for the artist's purposes. Abramović, on Danto's own view, is bestowing on viewers some sort of gift; she is doing them a "favor." I therefore don't quite get his claim that "The Artist is Present" exemplifies performance art insofar as that category or genre "has ignited in the public imagination the idea that one can do more than passively experience works of art." It seems to me to convey the reality that, for viewers, their "participation" is wholly ancillary. Moreover, insofar as Abramović entered into some sort of trance-like state during the performance she offered no recognition of viewers as agents. Would she even have noticed had the chair across from her were vacant? Conversely, how might sitting across from someone who is oblivious to your presence differ from viewing an inanimate object (painting, sculpture, photograph)? Perhaps that is the message Abramović sought to convey - that all art (at least in the industrial-gallery-museum complex) ultimately takes the form of such supplication on the part of viewers. I doubt it.

Perhaps I am way too jaundiced, but I simply don't buy Danto's claims (with respect to Abramović specifically, not art in general) about "spiritual" connections and so forth. Indeed, the real relevance of Warhol to all this - especially for the various repeat "performers" I pictured in the second of my earlier posts - lies in his overused remark about the fleeting and shallow nature of celebrity.
P.S.: The image I've lifted here shows the woman (seated to the left) to whom Danto refers in the passage I quote - she showed up, dressed like the artist, and sat for the bulk of an entire day of the show.

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Blogger Public Squalor said...

What a smoldering crock of "who gives a shit?"

Is there any other discipline where its institutions work so aggressively to validate irrelevance and narcissism?

~ criminy

09 June, 2010 13:24  
Blogger Tom White said...

I am updating my 'Subway' performance piece to include a nonchalant, indeed, indifferent attitude to those who sit opposite me as it seems 'engagement' is no longer a desired aspect of 'art'...

09 June, 2010 16:18  

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