Not being much of an “understander” of performance art and one who has little patience for what feels like exhibitionism, I was surprised at how affected I was by the HOB documentary about Maria Abromovic—“The Artist is Present”. I want to capitalize both the ‘I’ and the ‘S’ in ‘IS’ because, for me, putting the answer to “what is art?” in a nutshell begins with the number one requirement– that the artist be present.
The artist being present in the making and being present in the result is what makes a work of art resound. There are so many levels to that concept. We see it in areas in which we understand it more readily, especially in physical acts like in athletes, dancers, actors and musicians. We see them perform—use their whole being to act and react. The “sound” is in their deed. We see it in doctors and therapists too where their focus is trained on something/someone outside themselves while connecting to an innermost voice speaking compassion and empathy. And actually, we see it most easily in young children, when we watch their level of engagement as they explore and discover while their parents try to get them to execute some kind of act to please the audience of grandma, etc. Beware of the impulse ‘to please’. Picasso famously said: “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”
In visual art the idea of image much too easily supersedes the idea of the artist’s presence. Both are essential. But we are judged by the remnant of the ‘deed’, our action washed away like footprints in the sand. It’s so easy for the decorative powers of image to overtake what makes art resonate. Most often we don’t even know what that is.
Abromovic illustrates the power of presence accompanied by NOTHING else. Watch her “performance” at MoMA in 2010: http://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2010/marinaabramovic/ . She sits (7.5 hours a day, 6 days a week for 3 months) and with all her will and discipline she gives attention to over 750,000 people. I could be nothing but be deeply moved while I watched.
On another level it was interesting to have the analytic brain notice the number of women compared to men; how few people wore make-up; and the myriad of hair styles and hairlines that exist. There were famous people like Isabella Rossellini, Sharon Stone and I think I saw Alan Rickman who sat across from her. But they were all just “there”. No one was “anyone” and everyone was “someone”. Some cried. The lump in my throat lingered.
While we fool around with elements and principles of art and design because they comfort us as we cling to the tangible. The lump in the throat is what we strive for in our art-making–to touch someone, even if it is only ourselves.
It’s our high wire act. It’s our independence and our interdependence. Our voice is singular, our feelings universal. Happy 4th of July!