Performance Art’s Big Year: A Response to Recent Criticisms of Marina Abramović

Op-ed

Performance Art’s Big Year: A Response to Recent Criticisms of Marina Abramović

October 16, 2013

The Op-Ed column is a space for readers and contributors to sound off about Art Practical's content and to contribute to the larger conversation about Bay Area art which Art Practical supports.


Performance art is having a big year. The peripatetic attention spans of those who follow opening-night spectacles and the whims of the art market seem to have officially snapped into hyperfocus around the self-proclaimed grandmother of performance, Marina Abramović, who has gone into overtime in order to seize her moment. And she certainly has seized it: People now pronounce her name without stuttering, and she officially has an outspoken, Internet-based collection of haters, which is possibly the surest sign of real fame. Out for blood, the naysayers don’t seem content with simply proclaiming that Abramović’s recent projects are not any good. They assert, somewhat contradictorily, that her actions are single-handedly “killing” performance art while her entire body of work is so meaningless, it does not even merit mention within art discourse.

Just like that, a career … is tossed out the moment it moves from the periphery to the center of the art world’s attention.

The heat that Abramović has taken from a certain sector of the art world purportedly concerned with the “death” of what was once a so-called pure art form isn’t exactly surprising. Like any bitter hipster might when his or her obscure references achieve broader recognition, Abramović’s critics were provoked to renounce the former art darling in the wake of her celebrity associations and perceived aspirations of personal fame. What has been startling is the complete dismissal of her work and career as an artist.

Varying critical response in the wake of the Pace Gallery performance with Jay-Z manifested as an outpouring of tweets, including “culture is over,” “RIP US ALL,” and “Performance art has died today.”1 Jillian Steinhauer used some of these hyperbolic cries in her Hyperallergic article, “Jay-Z Raps at Marina Abramović, or the Day Performance Art Died,” in which Steinhauer questions the artist’s “superego.”2 And recently published on the San Francisco Arts Quarterly (SFAQ) website, Jarrett Earnest states in “Lambs Wheeled to Slaughter: Maria [sic] Abramović Institute,” a scathing critique of Abramović’s unopened institute, “OK, I am firmly opposed to talking about any aspect of Marina Abramović because I find it banal and irrelevant.” 3

Just like that, a career hard-won, labored over, and sacrificed for is tossed out the moment it moves from the periphery to the center of the public’s attention. And for what?

Jay-Z, Picasso Baby: A Performance Art Film, 2013; directed by Mark Romanek; 10:46. Courtesy of the Artist and Pace Gallery, New York.

Though the criticisms of Abramović’s works are opinions, this question needs to be addressed. So, I’ll say it: such reactions are rooted in plain, old sexism. These responses to Abramović’s work are based on the dated notion that ties women artists to the long-standing association of woman as muse: inspirational but ultimately speaking through others. Almost twenty-five years ago, the Guerrilla Girls pointed out in their Advantages of Being a Woman Artist (1989) poster that women artists aren’t supposed to want to be powerful, influential, or famous.4 They’re not Picasso, just “baby.” Greatness is achieved not in broad recognition and acclaim, but in their persistence to continue on, unexamined until their retrospectives at a late stage of their career (if they’re lucky to even be alive at that time).

After over fifty years of inflicting pain and isolation upon herself in pursuit of her work, delving into a rigorous study of the physical and cultural body, creating the foundational and iconic moments of late-twentieth-century time-based and non-material art (with works like her Rhythm series [1973–4] and her Relation pieces [1976–7; reenacted in 2010] with Uwe Laysiepen), winning the 1997 Venice Biennale’s Golden Lion, paying homage to other artists’ work in Seven Easy Pieces (2005) and then re-emerging with The Artist Is Present—her 2010 retrospective performance that shattered the Museum of Modern Art attendance records and catapulted her (and the very idea of performance art) to the national stage—is she to be content handing over the mantle of her labors to Jay-Z, James Franco, and any other celebrity who confuses performing and performance art? I think not.

The double standard is as stark as the one between the definitions of stud and slut.

The obvious aside, what’s the difference between Marina Abramović and Jean-Michel Basquiat? Abramović was in Jay-Z’s “performance art” music video, “Picasso Baby,” and made a movie with James Franco; Basquiat appeared in Blondie’s 1981 video for “Rapture” and dated "Borderline"-era Madonna. Why was Basquiat rewarded with greater art world credibility (critically and market-wise) for his affiliations, while Abramović must repudiate accusations of selling out? Would Jackson Pollock be considered a great artist if he hadn’t first appeared in LIFE magazine and become America’s poster boy for Abstract Expressionism? What about Jeff Koons, Julian Schnabel, and Lucian Freud? Each of these men has solidified their artistic legacies though their own fame or association with the famous, but for Abramović to do so is unbecoming? The double standard is as stark as the one between the definitions of stud and slut. Is it a coincidence that the default accusation of Abramović is “famewhore?”

Should she not have made an appearance at Jay-Z’s performance? By participating she at least laid claim to her creation and didn’t allow it to simply be co-opted into the pop-culture milieu. Performance artists have long seen their work stolen by bigger spotlights. Did her appearance legitimize what was obviously a spectacle of Bernaysian proportions? Perhaps. But the deep marketing pockets behind the project had already legitimized it; we would have heard about it regardless of whether Abramović had shown up or not. Abramović simply made sure that reviews also talked about her in the context of a work that so explicitly referenced her own that it would have warranted criticism if there had been no mention of her. Based on accounts from a first-hand witness, Abramović’s actions came across as quite hostile—an interpretation not completely represented in the eleven-minute film cut from the eight hours during which the performance went down.5 Maybe she didn’t so readily hand over the keys to the performance-art castle.
Marina Abramovic. Brazil, 2013. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: © Marco Anelli.

Not surprisingly, Abramović’s other celebrity Achilles-heel, James Franco, also claims the performance artist title. Did celebrities make performance art famous or has performance art claimed its own fame? One thing is certain, Abramović is the chicken in this—and she has the right to keep her egg from being crushed. After hearing her speak in a recent City Arts & Lectures conversation with museum director Lawrence Rinder, I’m confident in asserting that crediting artists for their work is a cause that is near and dear to her heart.6 It’s no major leap to see how shrewd her alignment with the celebrity endorsement of performance art has been when one considers the lifetime she has spent creating and guarding this work. She’s made sure that if we talk about her work, we talk about her, and not some version someone else is passing off.

Did celebrities make performance art famous or has performance art claimed its own fame?

If her plans for a futuristic-looking institute where people subject themselves to specialized garments and a series of exercise steps—not unlike yoga, which is a three-billion-dollar business in the U.S.—seems bizarre, then try giving her the same consideration you would give any of her notorious male peers at the top of the art totem pole. The truth is that the Marina Abramović Institute (MAI) is not a place that forces students to spend time and money in the pursuit of validation; that’s art school. MAI is a legacy-establishing project that allows the artist to present viewers with her work the only way she knows how: by making visitors experience it. It’s a practical idea if you consider that Abramović’s work has always been durational and experiential in nature or that she does not consider photo or video documentation of her work to be art. If it seems quirky or self-aggrandizing, it is; most legacy-building endeavors are. But it’s not a joke or an evil plot, and it’s certainly not very far removed from current art world dialogue. Who isn’t talking about the mental frenzy and physical disconnect of the digital information age?

Listen to Abramović talk about offering free museum admission to local residents so they can change the culture of their community. Listen to her discuss experimenting with consciousness on NPR’s Science Friday. Let her work speak for itself, and let’s continue to talk about all aspects of Marina Abramović’s work—past and future. Not doing so would not only diminish the artist but art history, as well.

Marina Abramović Institute. Marina Abramović Gives a Virtual Tour of the Institute, 2013; 2.52. Courtesy of the Artist.

Notes

  1. Jillian Steinhauer, “Jay-Z Raps at Marina Abramović, or the Day Performance Art Died,” Hyperallergic, July 10, 2013. Accessed September 30, 2013. http://hyperallergic.com/75293/jay-z-raps-at-marina-Abramović-or-the-day-performance-art-died/
  2. Ibid.
  3. Jarrett Earnest, “Lambs Wheeled to Slaughter: Maria [sic] Abramović Institute,” San Francisco Arts Quarterly Online. Accessed September 30, 2013, http://www.sfaqonline.com/2013/09/lambs-wheeled-to-slaughter-maria-abramovic-institute/
  4. Guerilla Girls, The Advantages of Being a Women Artist, poster, 1989.
  5. Lainya Magaña, conversation with author, September 2013.
  6. City Arts & Lectures, Marina Abramović in conversation with Lawrence Rinder, San Francisco, September 12, 2013.

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