Why is this Man Weeping?

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:

goth girl

The lady who came dressed as Marina Abramovic, to create a mirroring effect that both enhances and deconstructs the artist’s vision

older lady

The lady who brought a tissue because she always gets like this around performance art

mario man

The guy that’s faking it

sensitive man

The most sensitive man in the world

weeping woman

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

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22 Responses to Why is this Man Weeping?

  1. Eliza says:

    OH MY WORD. I didn’t believe you, I really thought you made this up until I went to your new york times link,,wow wow wow. Prepare for rant. I cannot stand this kind of attaching life altering meaning to crap. I know an artist and yeah he’s talented, but please don’t paint a bunch of squares of color (pretty squares, I grant you) and title it things like “the transcendence of man” “reflections on peace and war”, etc… Not only do they have to attach that kind of fake meaning to it, they then condescend to anyone who doesn’t “understand the depth and beauty of their art” and determine that person must be an ignorant hick with no culture or class. Seriously I’m fine with people loving art and saying “wow those are really pretty squares of color” or “this lady is very interesting looking” but attaching anything else to it is just people faking being a sensitive intellectual.

  2. Serene says:

    Being an art major myself, I never did understand this so called “element” of art. Artists are weirdos.

    Just speaking from experience.

    But I know what you mean. It kind of reminds me of lawyers who go to blogging conferences.

    Okay, just kidding. It was fun to have a chance to say hi to you face to face for a brief second before all the lawyer groupies came swarming in!

  3. Ben Pratt says:

    You didn’t even mention how long each of these phonies, er patrons sat there across from the hack, er artist. Some of them sat there doing Art for upwards of five hours.

    If it’s not clear, I “totally don’t get it” and I think it’s pretty silly stuff.

  4. Troy says:

    There are many similarities between these people and the people in Davis’ post on “The Narcissism of Small Differences”.

    All I know is, for some reason, there is a huge gaping hole in their longing souls and it doesn’t take much substance to fraudulently fill it up. See how deep I just got there? Read it again, and If you’re not crying by the time you read this part, then forget it, you wouldn’t understand.

  5. Andrea W. says:

    There is just something I must be missing. I wonder if they put tear gas in there? I think Troy’s analysis is right on. Funny, sad and weird!

  6. Melissa says:

    I will be the first to admit that many artists ARE weirdos. I went to art school and was constantly surrounded by eccentricity (of course I am completely normal). It really bothers me that they give us normal artists a bad name. Sometimes I’m ashamed to admit I’m an artist because people might assume I’m a tortured manic-depressant. No, I have never violently destroyed one of my unfinished works I’ve been privately obsessing over for years. I can’t even wear turtlenecks or scarves. Forget about a beret, even though there are some cute ones in style now. I might as well wear a sign that says “hi, I am this close to cutting off my ear”.

    Seriously though, so-called modern art is a total sham and a disgrace to real art. I went to the MOMA in San Francisco years ago, and there was an entire room with maxi pads covering the walls. Each one had a red-colored egg — like an Easter egg — in the middle of it. That is not art, that is someone’s sick joke. I would like to challenge these “artists” to paint a beautiful portrait, sketch a perfect likeness, sculpt something that resembles nature, create beauty from scratch. That’s the thing, they have no real artistic talent. Modern artists are not artists, they are con-artists.

    As a side note, I will be sitting at home tonight and if anyone wants to come sit in front of me and pay me for the experience, I’m okay with that. As a starving artist I could use the money.

  7. InkMom says:

    Somehow, this is absolutely reflective of our current world: self-centered and disconnected from reality. So maybe, in a roundabout way, you disproved yourself? I don’t know, I’m not a logician or even a lawyer, but considering our current leadership (no comment on his politics one way or another, but can’t we all agree he thinks he’s pretty awesome?) that Kennedy quote might just be right on the money: if great leadership is the catalyst for great art, then is crappy art the discharge of subpar governing?

    Funny, funny post. Even though as a musician, at first, I was just slightly offended by your disdain for the arts. Glad I kept reading.

  8. Christian says:

    I would cry too if marina was staring me down across the table for 5 hours.

  9. StefStar says:

    I agree with InkMom pretty much, but I think Kennedy had it exactly backwards: Society doesn’t reflect art; Art reflects society. And society is really jacked up right now.

  10. Ryan says:

    Eliza, I completely agree. It can be hard to look past what’s actually there and see something completely different. It’s a lot like the people who say there’s some sort of artful narrative in dance, huh?

    Hi Serene! It was great to meet you too. I’m glad you introduced yourself. And you’re still here after I insulted art majors- you’re a bigger person than me.

    Ben, the girl in the first picture I posted stayed there the entire day. I found an article interviewing her, and it turns out SHE was doing her OWN performance art piece, challenging Marina on her own terms. Incredible. If only they had set up a third chair so other audience members could participate in their battle of wills.

    Troy, this post is a lot like Davis’s post, except with more oaky nuttiness, and a bit more of a floral bouquet.

    Andrea, I don’t think these people need tear gas at all. The profundity of the moment is more than enough to justify tears for a certain type.

    Melissa, it’s interesting to get your perspective as an artist. That Maxi Pad display is one of the best I’ve ever heard. Really amazing.

    InkMom, I don’t think ‘disdain’ is the right word. I love lots of art. I just don’t like it when those who create it elevate its role to something so absolutely fundamental that the very fabric of our society depends upon it. I think we agree on that, right?

    Kook, the theory is that she’s in a special artistic trance-like state. Honestly, she would have to be to spend every minute day after day sitting there. But in that state, she’s not exactly staring at you– she’s penetrating you from a different dimension with her artist’s gaze. Not sure I follow it exactly, but that’s the theory.

    Stef, You are probably right. Hopefully that means that as we continue our decline into obscurity and weakness, we’ll have some really entertaining performance art to guide the way. This discussion reminds me of the videos Jack Donaghee produced for Jenna Maroney to introduce Tennis Night for Middle America on NBC. Now that was art that reflects culture.

  11. Davis says:

    Sigh. I knew nobody here would get what Marina has done. You kind of have to live on the coasts, I guess.

  12. Macy says:

    This story on this lady was pretty crazy. I love art, and think most of it is very,very inspiring, but I just couldn’t get over these people’s faces, and how long they would wait to sit in front of her. So weird.

  13. Wade says:

    I clicked on a few links that led to some more links that led me here:

    Day 18, Marina Abramović

    Hours of pondering while clicking through pictures and a few tears of my own I realize what is actually happening. Explanation found here:


  14. Ryan says:

    That is a lot of faces. Many of them seem to be keeping it real, to their credit. I especially like the kid ones- kids who have obviously been set up by their parents to jump in and feel something, and they mostly just look like they wonder what on earth they’re doing there.

    But Wade, performance art is not staring contests. Staring contests strengthen muscles and develop character through competition. Performance Art does none of these things.

  15. Ryan says:

    That was awesome. Excellent link, Azucar.

  16. erin says:

    That is so bizarre. In akward situations people don’t know how to react. I guess crying is as good as anything. So wierd.

  17. Braden says:

    Someone probably said this already and I’m too lazy to scroll up. I think there is a connection between society and the arts, but I would say that a healthy society, a confident, grounded society will have high quality art.

    As a music/theatre guy I totally agree that artists as a whole are incredibly narcissistic and inflate their own important. But, in fairness, I think pretty much every group of people does this.

  18. Charlotte says:

    I am so moved right now. I need to this exhibit, it will change my life, I just know it. Or maybe I just need a Diet Coke (yep, that was it).

  19. Nichole says:

    No way. I feel famous. Was at the MoMA to see Tim Burton’s exhibit and I saw her and that table and was thoroughly confused! There was a line and everything and after reading this blog I feel enlightened.

  20. “The guy that’s faking it.” So funny. This is the weirdest thing ever. I like InkMom’s comment.

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