Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Still Present | THE magazine - May 2, 2014

Fame vs. Celebrity

Raphael, were he alive today, would be a celebrity. By all accounts he was affable and charming, and the guy was handsome to boot. He might have been a James Franco, let’s say: talented with a bit of the approachable everyman to his image. Michelangelo, that touchy virtuoso, would have been a different kind of celebrity, valued not only for his terribilitá, but for his very refusal to adjust his attitude for his fans— maybe an elderly Joaquin Phoenix. And Leonardo, a secretive genius, would most likely have been today’s Albert Einstein, beloved by all, and belabored by his own luminosity. Let’s imagine Stephen Hawking in Stephen Colbert’s body for the “wow” kind of guy we’d all love to love.

In an article that appeared last fall in the online magazine ARTPULSE, Paco Barragán makes a carefully thought out distinction between fame and celebrity. Here is how he defines the two: “fame equals reputation/skills and ability/product/object, [while] celebrity stands for notoriety and recognition/ well-knownness/person/subject.” The Big Three of the High Renaissance, Raphael, Michelangelo, and Leonardo, are famous today for their art; were they alive now, they would surely be celebrities along the lines of Warhol, Rothko, and, in smaller circles (i.e. the art world), Marina Abramovic. Less famous than her counterparts, Abramovic has been accused recently, and often, of selling out to celebrity. Would we make the same accusation of Michelangelo today, for example, for deciding against risking the Pope’s wrath and consenting to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, even though he apparently did not wish to do so?

Abramovic is a performance artist who helped define the genre in its early years, in the second half of the twentieth century. Her singular works are iconic. They can be deeply moving to witness and contemplate, dealing as they often do with the essence of human nature. Abramovic has been a practicing artist for some forty years, and her work is rigorous, even dangerous. Offering her audience the tools of her own destruction, she has placed herself at their mercy, seeming to thrive on her own vulnerability. One of her most notorious performances, Rhythm 0, was staged in 1974. She placed objects on a table in front of which she was seated, passive, with a sign directing audience members to use the objects, which included honey, scissors, a gun and one bullet, in any way they chose. For six hours, the artist allowed herself to be manipulated at will by her audience. The performance ended when the loaded gun was pointed at her. She said later that she had learned that “if you leave it up to the audience, they can kill you...” Despite the close call, she has continued to push human limits of understanding and endurance in her artwork.

After all these years, Abramovic has been in the news cycles again lately. Her recent performance, The Artist is Present (also the title of a retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2012, where the performance took place), consisted of the artist, two chairs and a table, and one audience member seated in front of her. It was a grueling ordeal for the artist, who remained seated for as long as the museum was open to the public, six days a week from March to May for over seven hundred and fifty hours total. Abramovic’s stated objective was “to achieve a luminous state of being…to engage in what she calls ‘an energy dialogue’ with the audience.” She reached deeply within herself to offer viewers “stillness in the middle of hell,” as her curator put it. This is the kind of terrifying stillness we seek, consciously or not, in yoga, in meditation, and ultimately, in the face of our own death. Many individuals who sat across from the artist wept; she did too.

The Artist is Present offered its viewers the opportunity to be seen and acknowledged—no small thing in today’s hustle-and-bustle—and to share the experience in a unique and unforgettable encounter. One child collapsed after his session, his energy drained, while his mother wept over him. When he asked her why she was crying, she repeated several times, “I’m so proud of you.” This is where Abramovic’s art is superlative: She allows us to—no, she demands that we—experience the profound depths of our own selves without the distractions of words, work, or consumerism. Often, the artist has fasted for days while performing, denying her own needs in the face of a quest that can never be completely achieved but must always be sought. The nature of her work as a quest may suggest that she is a superior being, functioning in our society as a priestess, a guru, or a nun.

However, she is no nun. Key to any understanding of Marina Abramovic is the realization that she is a seductress. Underlying that trait, as with all would-be seducers, is the passionate desire for love’s requital, sexual or otherwise. Her curator for the MoMA exhibition—he was once romantically involved with the artist—states that she means nothing personal by her seductions; she merely “desires to be loved, she desires to be needed.” Don’t we all? Particularly as we get older, and Abramovic is now sixty-seven years old. She is compelling, intelligent, and beautiful, and I’m sure she doesn’t lack for interested suitors. But Abramovic seems to need the whole world to love her, and therein lies her downfall in certain art circles, which, unconsciously or not, fall back on Victorian conventions about artists in general and aging women in particular. Those assumptions imagine artists to be above our mundane requirements; artists are supposed to be our moral superiors, replacing mortal desire with an extraordinary genius. However, the truth of the matter is that artists are people fi rst, regardless of celebrity. If an attractive Serbian artist who happens to be closing in on seventy wants to dance with Jay Z (because he seeks recognition as an “artist”), that doesn’t mean that performance has died, as some would have it. It means that we have trouble with older women who are still sexual (and virile black men who want to be taken seriously for their talent and intellect, but that’s another story), women who still need recognition for their work, who aren’t willing to disappear into the wallpaper, babysitting the grandkids.

For the record, Jay Z joined the ranks of performance artists—or at least he claimed to, and I’d venture that’s up to him—when he fi lmed his “Picasso Baby” video at New York’s Pace Gallery last summer. The rapper is said to have been inspired by Abramovic, which I fi nd highly justifi able. In a six-hour marathon, he danced with and rapped at A-list names including Judd Apatow, Alan Cumming, Rosie P.rez, and Pablo Picasso’s granddaughter, Diana Widmaier. When Abramovic stepped into the ring, the paparazzi went crazy. Again, whether the two artists worked the celebrity angle successfully, tastefully, or intelligently is up to us, the viewers, to decide for ourselves against the backdrop of art history.

Let’s look again at Raphael, Michelangelo, and Leonardo, and re-cast them, this time as women. Raphael could be Jennifer Lawrence, radiant with charm, youth, and talent; Michelangelo would be Dame Maggie Smith, undeniably skilled and countenancing no nonsense; and Leonardo is Meryl Streep, a revered yet mysterious treasure growing from better to best as she ages. Now, put them on the dance fl oor with Jay Z, or for that matter, painting the Sistine ceiling. It’s a beautiful sight to behold, real and imagined. Let the artist be present within us all.

Kathryn M Davis is an art historian who specializes in modern and contemporary American art. She works as a writer, editor, and teacher, and hosts ArtBeat on KVSF 101.5. Find radio podcasts from the show on and on Facebook at ArtBeat Radio.