The New York Times has recently started a new blog, The Stone, which will present the ideas of prominent philosophers to the general public. This is a welcome experiment, given how difficult it is to talk about philosophy to a lay audience. However, if the first couple of entries indicate the general tone of the blog, this isn’t gonna be pretty.
In particular, I was disappointed by an essay by Arthur Danto, who is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Columbia University. Danto rose to fame when he endorsed the pop art culture of the ‘60s, arguing that a Brillo box, once put in a museum, becomes art (methinks not). I saw Danto give a talk at the City University’s Graduate Center a few weeks ago and was rather underwhelmed, but not as much as by his Stone article entitled “Sitting with Marina.”
The Marina in question is Marina Abramovic, and Danto waxes poetic about a “performance art” piece that she “exhibited” at the Museum of Modern Art. The piece consisted of Abramovic simply sitting in a room in the museum, with the public invited to sit across from her, one person at a time, for as long as they liked. Danto himself took part in the “performance,” and apparently most participants sat there for about 20 minutes, with one young woman pissing off everyone by sitting for the whole day!
This exercise in inanity is part of an Abramovic retrospective entitled — I imagine the pun was intended — “The Artist is Present” and is one of those contemporary “art” stunts that gives the whole art world a bad reputation.
To begin with, of course, there is no “performance,” as the artist literally stayed in place motionless. Second, if this counts as art, and if people are willing to pay to “participate” in or just to see it, then I might consider selling tickets for you to come see me snoring in front of late night TV. I assure you that it will be just as good an insight into the human soul as staring into Abramovic’s face for an entire day. And I’ll give you a discount that will beat MoMA’s prices.
Of course my point here is to ask the perennial question: what is art?, which has been addressed on Rationally Speaking recently by Julia. Danto himself is keenly aware that the question will arise in the minds of his readers, sidesteps it and attempts to address instead the “meaning” of the piece. Interestingly, he then apparently forgets even his own question and tells us instead that “the performance has brought MoMA itself to the cutting edge of contemporary artistic experiment, and has in every way proven to be a succès fou.” You know he must be right if you have to look up what succès fou actually means (French for “wild success,” though since fou also means crazy, one could instead interpret the phrase as a much more appropriate “the success of the fools”).
Here is Danto again, describing the “experience” of sitting across from Abramovic, together with my running commentary:
“Marina looked beautiful in an intense red garment whose hem formed a circle on the floor, and her black hair was braided to one side.”
Okay, though of course this has nothing to do with art. Almost every other woman you pass by in New York could answer to a similar description, the details of the garment infinitely varying.
“This performance is very much a dialogue de sourds — a dialog of the deaf. Communication is on another plane.”
There you go with the French again. Ma perchè non parli inglese? (Italian for “But why don’t you speak English?” I thought I would gain some gravitas — Latin — asking the question that way.) And on what other plane was this communication taking place, anyway? Danto doesn’t say, nor, of course, does he tell us about the content of such communication.
“At this point, something striking took place. Marina leaned her head back at a slight angle, and to one side. She fixed her eyes on me without — so it seemed — any longer seeing me. It was as if she had entered another state. I was outside her gaze. Her face took on the translucence of fine porcelain. She was luminous without being incandescent. She had gone into what she had often spoken of as a ‘performance mode.’”
What is striking about this is that it was happening in a major international museum of art, and that it is being recounted by a leading art critic without a trace of irony.
“For me at least, it was a shamanic trance — her ability to enter such a state is one of her gifts as a performer. It is what enables her to go through the physical ordeals of some of her famous performances. I felt indeed as if this was the essence of performance in her case, often with the added element of physical danger.”
A shamanic trance? Neither one of them were even on drugs, thereby missing the major pleasure of shamanic trances. And the essence of performance is to look beyond the eyes of the person in front of you? Well, I did not know that I experience the essence of performance every time my eyes glaze over an interlocutor whose yapping becomes boring.
Of course, not all “performance art” needs to be so unimaginative and still. Last year Kathleen Neill was arrested (though a judge later dismissed the charges) because she was performing naked at the MoMA, perhaps setting the precedent for more naked live art that is now part of the very same Abramovic exhibit. Why do I have the nagging feeling that this has much more to do with exhibitionism and publicity stunts than with art?
I realize the typical objection to my reaction to Danto’s essay: well, it’s a matter of subjective taste, and if you don’t like it just don’t go see it. If one wishes to take the relativist turn in art, fine, but then explain to me two things: in what sense can anyone claim that Abramovic is — as Danto puts it — “one of the early performance artists whose works have the deep originality that justifies their inclusion in great museums”? Moreover, if taste in art is entirely arbitrary, what then is the role of a critic?
I happen to think that there is good art and bad art, and that there also is stuff that pretends to be art but isn’t. I will defend my opinion that Beethoven was a musical genius and Britney Spears a mediocre performer, and I will moreover argue that if you know anything about music you must agree with such judgment, regardless of whether you like or dislike classical or pop music. If you don’t, you are not just exercising your right to a different opinion (which, of course, you do have), you simply understand music even less than I do, and that’s saying a lot. What was Danto thinking when waxing poetic about a piece of performance art that very arguably was neither?