Decadence on Display — Self-Mutilation as “Performance Art”

Decadence on Display — Self-Mutilation as “Performance Art”

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
November 8, 2005

Art critic Roger Kimball once remarked that the art proudly identified as “transgressive” is now establishment art. The perverse has become the norm.

An article published in Sunday’s edition of The New York Times makes this point graphically clear. in “Self-Mutilation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery,” reporter Randy Kennedy describes the “work” of Marina Abramovic, whom he describes as “a groundbreaking performance artist.”

Whatever Ms. Abramovic’s productions may be, it takes a truly perverse mentality to call it art. She does consider herself to be something of a “grandmother” in the world of performace art. Her live performaces have, for example, featured her sceaming until she lost her voice and brushing her hair until her head bleeds.  Those are actually rather tame examples from her repertoire.

Now, Ms. Abramovic will perform for seven consecutive nights at New York’s Guggenheim Museum. She is set to recreate some of her performaces of the past, including carving a star into her stomach with a razor blade.

She is also to recreate a past performance that involves allowing the audience to absue her body with weapons. Here is how Mr. Kennedy describes the act:

Performed only once in Naples in 1974, its premise was terrifyingly simple: She agreed to stand in a gallery for six hours while anyone who came in could choose any of 72 objects around her – including knives, scissors, a needle, a loaded gun – and do anything they wanted to her with the objects. It was her only work in which she essentially ceded control over her body, and over the pain to be inflicted, to her audience.

The participants became involved slowly at first, but after a while Ms. Abramovic’s clothes were cut off, and her body marked, burned and cut. Finally, a man took the gun and made her put it up to her head, trying to force her to squeeze the trigger. She didn’t resist, but a fight ensued as other spectators intervened. “This was the only performance where I was really ready to die,” she said. Trying to explain why, she repeated a well-known quotation from the artist Bruce Nauman, one of whose performance pieces will also be recreated in her show: “Art is a matter of life and death. This may be melodramatic, but it is also true.”

Officials of the Guggenheim evidently saw this act as over the top. From the report: But she will not get the chance to demonstrate that proposition at the Guggenheim, at least in so stark a fashion. She and Nancy Spector, the museum’s curator of contemporary art, had long discussions about the dangers involved in the piece, about the difficulty – or near impossibility – of getting permission for the gun and about whether the piece could be staged without it. “The risks really outweighed anything else,” Ms. Spector said, “and then it really came down to the legal questions. We just couldn’t find a way to have a loaded gun in the museum. And she, being who she is, could not do something halfway. She really did want to perform a work that had that level of toughness that really confronted her audience and gave them a sense of this side of her work.” There is no question, even with the exclusion of the loaded guns and nails, that Guggenheim visitors will see tougher work than they have seen on Museum Mile in a long time. Each performance will last for seven hours, adding Ms. Abramovic’s own twist on performances that were originally much shorter, stretching them out into her trademark endurance tests.

Here we see the decadence of our age in brutal clarity. A civilization that would charge persons money to witness and to enjoy seeing another person mutilate her body is a civilization on the brink of something truly frightening. What does this say about America’s cultural class? Will they get dressed up and make the right dinner reservations before attending this cultural event?

When a major museum like the Guggenheim negotiates over whether a loaded handgun can be used in a performance like this, the foundation of the culture must surely be cracking.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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