A Massive Hoax

A MOMA Exhibit reviewed

There sits the artist dressed in a long, her long black braid draped forward over her shoulder. In front of her sits a young lady visitor. In a few minutes the latter will be able to send a Twitter message to her friends telling them that she has been part of a MOMA “performance”. Cool! Her manifest excitement at being in the public eye, with a video to prove it, is clear upon her face. Behind a rope sit, squat, or lie a large number of people of all ages, impassive and speechless, simply staring at the two people ensconced at the very ordinary table, before which sits the artist and her temporary companion. Nothing happens. There is no movement and no noise.

This is an exhibit (at the time of writing) at the Museum of Modern Art in New York by an established Serbian artist, Marina Abramovic, called The Artist is Present. The official description reads:

The Artist is Present is Abramvic’s longest performance to date. Visitors are encouraged to sit across the table from the artist for a duration of their choosing, becoming participants in the artwork rather than remaining spectators. Although Marina Ambramovic is silent, maintaining a nearly sculptural presence with a fixed pose and gaze, the performance is an invitation to engage in and complete a unique situation. The Artist is Present distorts the line between everyday routine and ceremony. Positioned in a vast atrium within a square of light, the familiar configuration of a table and chairs has been elevated to another domain.

This activity, or inactivity, is so silly it begs the question at what point will someone have the courage to state the obvious - - that the emperor has no clothes? Does this prove that you really can fool all the people all of the time? It is fooling hordes of visitors who sit there, dead serious, gazing at the non-event as if it were serious art. In another part of the museum there are stark naked actors taking part in another installation. It seems they are being pawed by some of the visitors, who in turn are being ejected. Well, what do you expect?

Are the hucksters of the modern art world laughing at us all behind their hands, or do they really think that these ephemera have the remotest merit? I found myself wondering whether the Serbian originator of the exhibit had ever attended art school and whether she could paint or draw.

Then the truth hit me: it doesn’t really matter, because she is only doing what any other rational, intelligent person would do, given the current culture in the arts world. Her calculation is, I guess, as follows: what can I do that takes minimal thought, time, and financial involvement yet be offered a huge amount of space in an atrium in America’s premier art museum, and be paid for my effort? Why, sit doing absolutely nothing in a long, shapeless robe. So, thinks she, my “performance” is here today, gone tomorrow. Anyone can reproduce it (although why they would want to is a mystery. As it turns out some forty people have done just that, according to Ms. Abramovic’s website). No one will come to see my work in a century’s time. I am no Michelangelo or Rembrandt, to be ooohed and aaahed at in important art galleries or collected by the very rich. But who cares? I will have achieved a certain notoriety (all publicity is good publicity) and a certain income, and will have survived. That is a triumph in the competitive world of “art”.

Meanwhile, art schools are churning out thousands of young people who have to think of something, anything, that is different, in order to make their names. Sensitivity, talent and beauty do not enter into it - - the gimmick is the message. Will the general public finally realize that the reason actors stand there, stark naked at exhibitions is because they can think of nothing more thought-provoking to do?

Meanwhile, the Director of MOMA has to find the money to finance the exhibitions and installations at his museum. If he can continue to raise the funds to do so from unwary donors he earns every penny of the $1,320,000 he is paid a year.

4/22/2010