There’s a beautiful inscription on the side of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, which Macy and I used to pass several times a week on the way into Washington D.C. when we lived there. It says:
There is a connection, hard to explain logically, but easy to feel, between achievement in public life and progress in the arts. The age of Pericles was also the age of Phidias. The age of Lorenzo de Medici was also the age of Leonardo Da Vinci, the age of Elizabeth also the age of Shakespeare, and the new frontier for which I campaign in public life, can also be a new frontier for American art. – John F. Kennedy
This strikes me as a really profound insight on the role of art in shaping us as individuals and communities. Not really. It strikes me as a load of crap. I’m sure this “John F. Kennedy” was a nice enough man, but it looks like he got a little carried away on this one. Given to fits of high-flown rhetoric, often about topics of real significance, like communism, or what-your-country-can-do-for-you, or the Ladies, it appears that maybe old Jack just couldn’t restrain himself when someone told him to make up a little ditty about art. (Incidentally, the two most prominent pieces of art that are linked with Mr. Kennedy actually are reflective of the quality of our culture, I suppose. There’s the intimate portrait of him praying, which represents a deep strain of spirituality in our culture. And then there’s that famous rendition of “Happy Birthday Mr. President,” which represents the fond hopes and dreams of roughly half the American population).
” . . . the age of Kennedy was also the age of Monroe . . . “
I guess I just don’t really feel like Art always has a major impact on the rest of our society. At least not nearly as much as artists and art fans tend to think. It’s a tendency of every group or trade to elevate their own contribution to one that is essential and defining for humanity. Lawyers do this, usually polishing off some old chestnut from Abraham Lincoln about the dignity of the law when speaking at conferences of lawyers, which helps to justify their dignified salaries. (Teachers also seem to have a pretty high opinion of the importance of their contribution, but we can’t make fun of teachers. They’re second only to the troops in being beyond mockery. It’s in their union contract.) Still I think you have to look pretty hard to find any group of people that over-inflates their own importance to society more than artists. Art is great. It can be interesting to look at sometimes. But art does not make society, and I’m pretty sure we’ve proved this as we’ve replaced Art with things like Lost and Beyonce, and who doesn’t think that’s an improvement?
Anyway, I just want to share one of my all-time favorite examples of artistic self-inflation, which I discovered last week. Marina Abramovic is a performance artist. She is known for her past achievements in performance art, which consisted of standing around naked in different settings while people wandered by. Sometimes she would weep, which shakes up the monotony of just standing there. Now, nearing the end of her career, Marina is coming back with a vengeance. She had a new ‘installation’ at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (Davis never tells us about this stuff) where she and her boyfriend sat naked on either side of a doorway, so that when museum patrons needed to walk through the doorway, they had to pass closely by two naked artists/art pieces. That piece was called “Imponderabilia.” Pretty neat.
But for her biggest performance ever, Marina had another idea. For this, she would remain fully clothed (another bravely transgressive decision, given that nakedness in performance art was now more predictable than actually putting clothes on). Here is her description of the performance:
I decided that I want to have a work that connects me more with the public, that concentrates … on the interaction between me and the audience.
I want to have a simple table, installed in the center of the atrium, with two chairs on the sides. I will sit on one chair and a square of light from the ceiling will separate me from the public.
Anyone will be free to sit on the other side of the table, on the second chair, staying as long as he/she wants, being fully and uniquely part of the Performance.
I think this work [will] draw a line of continuity in my career.
Did you catch the part about what her performance is going to be? She’s going to sit in a chair, and museum visitors can go sit in another chair across from her. What we’re saying is that this artist is actually providing an opportunity for people to go sit across from her! In a museum! Regular people like James Franco, and Marisa Tomei, and Bjork! And how has this art been received among New York art fans and people who love society? Extremely well!
People have stood in line for entire days at the MOMA waiting for their chance to sit across from Marina. This is what they are waiting to see:
The artist/art piece
When you sit down across from the person pictured above, you are taken over by Art. What is the reaction this Art provokes in the participant? Well, if you’re not already in a weeping, transcendent reverie from looking at that face, allow me to show you some examples of the state you would be in, if you knew anything about Art:
The lady who came dressed as Marina Abramovic, to create a mirroring effect that both enhances and deconstructs the artist’s vision
The lady who brought a tissue because she always gets like this around performance art
The guy that’s faking it
The most sensitive man in the world
The woman who didn’t expect to cry today, but was caught totally unawares by the beauty of the experience of sitting across from Marina Abramovic, who is very deep
Anyway, I suppose it makes sense, and is consistent with Kennedy’s vision, that the age of American decline is also the age of silent crying art lovers in the MOMA. I would love to be able to ask some of these people some questions. Like “how did you keep from giggling while you sat there?” Or “would you like to come sit across from me sometime?” But I don’t suppose they’d want to talk about it. It’s clearly a very personal journey. As for Marina, all I can say is that I’m reeeeally looking forward to hearing about her next installation.
All images from the New York Times