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Wednesday, July 27, 2011


Anyone in America...

...needs to contact this school district.

Here's why: Michelle Bachman's rules have been so viciously supportive of homophobic bullying that there have been nine teen suicides in the past two years. Teachers have been effectively forbidden from stopping physical assaults. It's a disaster.

You need to be a US citizen to fill out this form, so I can't do it. (Tip of the hat to Josh on the Slacktiverse for pointing it out.) Anyone who can, please, please do.

Friday, July 08, 2011


Consensual art

In 1974, the artist Marina Abramovic created a performance piece known as Rhythm 0. The piece involved a table, a series of objects - seventy-two in all, including a rose, a feather, grapes, honey, a whip, a scalpel, a gun and a bullet - and her own body.

This is her description of what happened:

I was standing there in the middle of the space with this table with objects. I put the objects on the table very carefully chosen, because the objects was for pleasure, and there was also the objects for pain, and objects that can bring you to death ... In the beginning the public was really very much playing with me; later on became more aggressive. It was six hours of real horror. They would cut my clothes; they would cut me with the knife close to my neck, drink my blood and then put a plaster over the wound; they would carry me around half-naked, put me on the table and stab the knife between my legs into the wood; and even somebody put a bullet in the pistol and put it in my hand ... pressing ... her hand against my hand and seeing if I would resist. But I remember after six hours when the gallery's come and say 'This piece is finished', that I started being by myself and started walking to the audience, you know, naked and with blood and, you know, tears in my eyes, everybody ran away - literally ran out of the door. I remember coming to the hotel that evening, looking [at] myself in the mirror, and seeing [a] really big piece of white hair.
The courage displayed in holding out for six hours in the name of art is astonishing, and the piece itself is fascinating. It seems to occupy a place between performance, meditation and psychological experiment, reminiscent of the Stanford prison experiment: a confrontation with the uncomfortable knowledge that, given the opportunity to hurt another human being, many people will take it. Perhaps out of sadism, but perhaps out of sheer curiosity: when the restrictions and taboos we usually rely on are removed, maybe it takes a certain strength of resolve to resist the temptation to hurt someone, just because you can't quite believe that you can get away with this: testing reality on someone else's body. Out of such curiosity, perhaps, come many atrocities: when the world and its norms upend, people may poke at the sore tooth of disbelief, using weapons and the bodies of helpless people. Likewise, it tells us a great deal about objectification; it would, for instance, be interesting to know how an audience would treat a male artist under the same conditions. The piece itself takes place in the relationship between artist and audience ... and as such, touches upon all sorts of intriguing reflections.

According to the clip I linked, Abramovic designed the piece in response to claims that performance art was masochistic and sensationalist because performers often used their bodies aggressively. Ambramovic, by simply giving the audience a choice of how to behave, relocated that aggression in the audience - but at the same time, looked at from another angle, Rhythm 0 was a profoundly aggressive act, or at least, a profoundly assertive one. In becomimg entirely passive and letting the audience reactions be part of the piece no matter what, Abramovic effectively encompassed and appropriated any possible reaction of the audience. No reaction the audience could give would not serve the interests of the piece. In her refusal to let the audience dictate, in any way, no matter how horrifically they behaved, what she would do on that stage - she had decreed she would be passive for six hours, and that's what she did - she cast the responsibility entirely back on the audience. She made them so responsible that eventually they tortured her and then ran away from her.

The relationship between artist and audience is a fraught one, and there can be an undercurrent of aggression that is, at times, shocking.

I just heard of this piece because my husband was reading a thread about it on reddit. In this thread, a commenter boasted that, were he there, he'd have sexually assaulted her and told her her art was crap, apparently under the impression that this made him clever. Of course, it wouldn't have done: assuming he actually would have done this (and Internet loudmouths are seldom to be trusted), it would merely have formed part of the piece: by her resolute passivity, Abramovic would have been getting him to reveal what kind of a person he was - and indeed, succeeded in doing so even without his presence at the performance. Such invitations do ask us to consider what we would have done.

I honestly don't know how I would have acted had I attended Rhythm 0. Thinking about her 2010 performance The Artist Is Present, in which she sat still at a table and people were free to sit opposite her, my first thought was to sit down, say, 'You may differ from me, but in your position I'd be bored,' and read aloud some poetry to pass the time pleasantly. That is, given the opportunity to mistreat someone, I'd consider myself presented with a challenge: do we only treat each other well because we're forced to by social rules? How do you deal with the knowledge that when the rules aren't enforced, you can actually do anything to anyone? And to my mind, the most assertive response is: I'll treat the person well because I choose to. In so doing, I declare that when I treat people well, it is because I choose and not because I am compelled. It's a kind of positive existentialism: the world may be random and without message, but within it, I choose.

And thinking that, I thought about occasions when I've argued with people, and have reacted by refusing to become rude. Sometimes I've been mad at people and reacted by sympathising with them. There have been times when I've been nice as an act of serious aggression - not to manipulate people, but to draw a boundary around myself: no matter how you aggress on me, you do not get to dictate how I behave. I will set a standard and act by it, and you will not provoke me into falling below it.

There are, in short, ways in which one can choose not to aggress that are combative.

But then there are combative reactions to art that are not very nice. Abstract and conceptual art, for instance, garner a lot of aggression. Some of it is imaginative - flying a burger past David Blaine on a remote-controlled helicopter, for instance, is a stunt in its own right - but some of it is just dumb anger, as with our friend on reddit.

What is it about conceptual art that makes people so angry? I have a suspicion, and it's not to the credit of the angered.

Art always serves a double function: beauty and consumption. Even artists who share their work for free are subject to consumption; art is both expression and product. And in many eras, certainly in Europe, consumption can dominate, for the simple reason that we all have to make a living. This can create a considerable tension.

Sixteenth-century British art, for instance, was largely dependent on patronage. Hence, to support yourself painting, you needed to produce paintings that patrons would buy, which meant painting subjects that patrons wanted. What patrons wanted was portraits. Hence, we have a lot of miniatures from that period. Yet even then, artists were arguing for a status higher than that ofmere commission-takers; Nicholas Hilliard, one of the most successful portraitists, argued in The Art of Limning (circa 1600) that it was 'a kind of gentle painting' - 'gentle', in this context, meaning noble, fit for a gentleman. It's a tension that has never gone away. Does the artist serve at the pleasure of the customer, or does the customer take what the artist chooses to provide? Or both? Or neither?

Art matters to us. Art is our contact with the world through the lens of other minds, but it's also our escape from the world, and it's also part of the face we turn to the world: the art we consume can be a way of displaying ourselves. How we consume art can become a big part of our identities.

Consequently, we don't always want art to throw that responsibility for determining who we are back at us. If art is there to consume, an artist is there to serve it up. And if they don't serve it up the way we like it, some of us react, on the surface, like angry customers who ordered a steak and were served a shoe: this isn't what you're supposed to do! Underneath that customer stance, though, there can be another layer.

From an artist's point of view, you see, there's a nightmare reader: the kind who considers that buying your book makes you their employee. If, having paid their eight quid, they find that you didn't write the kind of book they wanted, or you did and you haven't written another one, or you did but it's the wrong kind, or if you are but you're not doing it fast enough, or even if you express an opinion that they dislike on your own time, some people go beyond disappointment into outrage - and from outrage, into controlling language: the author should be ashamed, they need to grow up, they totally let their readers down. Often these are people who read a lot. For some consumers, the relationship with an artist is like nothing so much as the way an abuser views his partner: so essential to his identity that she has to be controlled with force.

There's the nightmare fan, of course, but there's also the person who gets angry with an artist they've never heard of for producing - or perhaps for getting legitimate attention for producing - art that supports a view of art the person doesn't like. Usually, such a person is angry with an artist for failing to satisfy ideas of art that they've acquired from art that caters to them more.

Now, not every work of art that shocks, annoys or displeases does so because it's bold and innovative. Some stuff is shocking to no purpose, which is crass and shallow, and some just isn't any good. As an undergraduate, I was on the committee of a theatrical society that funded plays, and by the time I graduated, I never wanted to hear the words 'challenge the audience's preconceptions' again. Nobody ever wanted to touch my heart or tickle my funny bone or lift my spirit; it was only my preconceptions they seemed to find so irresistible, and too much of that can be wearing. But the reason it was wearing was not that it's always pretentious to go against what the audience expects; it was simply that the people who talked about challenging my preconceptions never actually did. It was a convention in itself, and hence not very challenging; after a couple of terms, one of my preconceptions was that at least a quarter of the pitches would promise to challenge my preconceptions, and it was indeed so. (It was also a bit insensitive to the likely audience. Most of the people watching student plays in Cambridge would be arts undergraduates, in the middle of getting an extremely demanding education about the history of culture. Their preconceptions about what a play could be were very flexible indeed; promising to challenge them was like promising to shock an experienced social worker. You'd need to come up with something pretty remarkable.) If somebody had really challenged my preconceptions, I would have enjoyed it.

For instance, let's talk about artistically faked violence and aggression. The other day I took my life in my hands and watched the film Martyrs. Now, before I champion the director too loudly I should probably acknowledge that I owe him an apology, because I watched it like a complete coward. Rather than watching it beginning to end in a single sitting as was intended, I skipped around on LoveFilm, watching the ending first to see if I could stand it before risking getting attached to the characters, and then watching the rest in sections. (I have the excuse of a baby for the sections, but there's really nothing to say about watching the ending first except that I was being wet. I was resisting the artist's full creation, and that was my fault.) My white liver aside, I found the film extraordinary and fascinating - horrendous and sickening as well, but ultimately compassionate, intelligent and elegant.

In Martyrs, violence is, to put it mildly, a feature. What's most interesting is the director's perspective:

So we pay to watch films that we already know in advance what it's gonna be and we are not challenged anymore and I think the very reason for the horror film genre's existence is to break some rules ... And it's very sad, in a certain way actually, a lot of actual horror films are absolutely as safe as any family film produced by Hollywood. You know? There is no chance, no breakings.

...The problem is that we have lost something [of] our faith, [our] primitive innocence. Everything in the world has become so self conscious, and it goes with politics, ideology, you know? the lost of illusions. Now, to be cool, is to be cynical. You can't be surprised because you're [a] cool guy. And everybody is always the same, you know it's the 'cool attitude' and cynicism that kills everything because it's the opposite of the faith we need to be told some stories, you know? We have lost the faith in narrators, to the people who [told us] what the world is, to make us believe in other worlds, to [tell us] stories. Now it's the opposite - it's the post-modern world we are living in, and we are very aware of everything. And I hate that. As... I hate that as a director. And I hate that as a member of the audience. Any time I feel like the director wants to be clever, wants to tell me very precisely that he is more intelligent than the film he is doing, you know by pretending being funny, being... I hate that. For me, it's a betrayal. I want to be like a child and I need some primitive feelings facing a work of art. ]

Describing the kind of horror films he was trying to get away from with Martyrs, he comments:

[they're] self-referential. Very aware of where they come from and who they are made for. You know like, you... how do you say that? You do a blink...

[Inteviewer]: "Nudge-nudge, wink-wink"

Pascal Laugier: Absolutely, "I love the same films that you do, guys. We all know where it comes from, isn't it fun?" Some people find it fun, [but] I don't. I know it makes me sound like an asshole - very arrogant, very pretentious - but who cares? I don't. I pay... I go to see movies to be amazed.

Noodling around on rottentomatoes.com to see what the critical response had been*, I came across a negative review of Martyrs that spoke not just of a displeased critic but of genuine artistic enmity. The critic compares Martyrs unfavourably with Hostel on the grounds that Hostel had firsties on the idea of chaining someone up and torturing them, but he also complains with genuine bitterness that:
...unlike "Martyrs", "Hostel" didn't take itself seriously. "Martyrs" is super, super serious. There's not an ounce of humor in this movie, which is probably the worst thing about it ... Over seriousness is the kiss of death for a horror movie, in my opinion.

[Ah nuts, Blogger won't undo the paragraph indent. Sorry.]

The reviewer, in fact, considered it artistically criminal not to assume the "nudge-nudge, wink-wink" attitude.

Now, I'm entirely on Laugier's side; who on earth decreed that a film about torture couldn't take itself seriously, and what on earth was the matter with them? But in a less violent way than Abramovic's experience, we're seeing the same basic reaction: objectification for fun is pleasurable, but turn around and hold the audience responsible and they don't like it. Amuse me, but take yourself too seriously - forget your place and call it a kind of gentle painting instead of a service - and the audience will be antagonised.

There's more than one kind of portraiture, that's the thing. You can paint a picture of a single patron, or you can wink and nudge at the shared assumptions of a community audience. In the former case, you're painting a flattering picture of a face; in the latter, you're painting a flattering picture of a subculture. We're all in this together, goes the latter painting: we all know these are cool things to like, but we're also cool enough that we can laugh because we're actually above it. I won't try to take power over you by making you feel anything too serious; the patron is the one truly in charge.

Abramovic forced her audience to paint a portrait of themselves, and when it was finished, they saw what it was: a weeping, blood-covered woman. And they didn't like it. Nowadays the image of a weeping, blood-covered woman is popular entertainment, but it's 'the kiss of death' to take it seriously.

This is why it's called objectification. Women get it all the time, but artists get it too. In both cases, the message is that you're there to serve at the pleasure of the beholder, and that you're forgetting your place if you don't do it right.

*Extremely divided. About half the reviews were positive, the other half negative. Of the negatives, about half were by critics unsympathetic to the genre who condemned it for being too mindless and visceral; the other half were by critics narrowly focused on the genre who condemned it for being too intellectual and artsy-fartsy. Pah.


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