Monet and Abramovich at MOMA (2010)

Beauty demands to be observed. This is the first principle of aesthetics deriving from Greek philosophy. Like many other things, the perception of beauty is partly innate and partly culturally determined. Monet and the other impressionists caused a riot when their paintings were first exhibited It was seen as haphazard, lacking form or discipline, and yet Monet's “Water Lilies” are seen today as the epitome of beauty for beauty's sake. Perhaps art as the pure pursuit and rendering of beauty ended with the death of Monet in 1926.

Until that time, art was concerned with mimesis, the representation of nature. Artists of different eras concentrated on different aspects – in the Renaissance, perspective was rediscovered. The impressionists, especially Monet, were concerned with the perception of light in its different aspects. That is what we perceive as beauty, the quality present in a thing or person that gives intense pleasure or deep satisfaction to the mind, whether arising from shape, color, or sound.

Modern art including non-representational art, began more than a decade before Monet's death, but it was still a pursuit of beauty and order, if perhaps a different standard of beauty borrowed from other cultures. It was really not modernism but post-modernism that sought to save art by destroying it, to paraphrase the infamous Vietnam era statement: “We wanted to save the village by destroying it.”

The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates coined the phrase: “Life is short; art is long.” And since art is long, the effect is cumulative. For example, humanism, the concept that “man is the measure of all things,” has remained in the forefront or sometimes in the background, but whether or not a work of art has any attribution or “higher purpose,” it is inherently a celebration of the human spirit, a celebration of life. Post-Modernism attempts to pull down the edifice by chipping away at the foundations. Man is not the measure of all things. Art is temporary. Its purpose is not aesthetic but didactic.

This essay is transcribed from notes I made at two concurrent exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art in the spring of 2010, Monet's Water Lilies and a retrospective of the performance artist, Marina Abromovic including her performance piece, “The Artist is Present.” This work is, in my eyes, a celebration of death. She takes on the role of Medusa (though the allusion is not mentioned) turning her subjects, anyone who looks at her, into stoned as she sits motionless for hours, days, weeks, facing a succession of frozen volunteers who return her stare. Upstairs there are at least a dozen more live victims, mostly undressed, in uninteresting poses. One woman occasionally blinks as she lies under a skeleton. A couple sits back to back with their hair tied together. It seems like torture, like sadomasochism. In a video screen she coolly describes cannibalism in rats; a pile of little bones lies on the gallery floor. And what is sadomasochism without a little sex? Another video shows ululating women running toward the camera and lifting their skirts to reveal their pubes, while on another screen a field full of naked men hump the ground, butts bobbing up and down. If these are some form of fertility rite they are sterile, banal, robbed of all sensuality, drained of life.

Performance art, since its inception in the 1960's has often involved self-abuse, self-abasement and even self-inflicted bodily harm. In an early performance, “Shoot” by Chris Burden, the artist had a friend shoot him in the arm at a distance of thirteen feet. The plan was for the bullet to graze his arm, but it landed him in the hospital. Later he had himself nailed as if crucified to the roof of a Volkswagen. Is this not similar to the geek, in the original sense, a sideshow performer who, lacking other talents or the physical attributes to join the freak show, bit the heads of of live chickens? (an act which produces shock at first but later disgust). Abramovic's first performance was in 1973, not long after Chris Burden achieved notoriety. Stripping away the academic sounding rationale, I will just describe the performance. It was an extreme version of the game called mumbley peg, that she titled “Five Finger Fillet” in which she used rhythmic knife jabs aimed between her splayed fingers. After cutting herself twenty times, she sought to actually replicate her mistakes. Several of her performances since then have involved some form of self-inflicted harm.

How is Abramovic's oeuvre different from the genre of horror movies like “Village of the Damned” to use an example based on the device of the withering stare which the volunteers downstairs are trying to withstand . Or for that matter, how is what we are witnessing upstairs different from porno movies in which the naked human form is directed through repetitive action devoid of character or motive? The answer is that at least the horror and porno flicks are without the pretentiousness. I know it is a cliché but, the work elicits clichés, as in “the emperor has no clothes.”

Yet, I do not wish to discount an entire genre of art. Six years before Chris Burden had himself shot, Yoko Ono staged a performance at a hall in New York City called “Cut Piece.” Dressed in a suit, she sat down on the floor in the middle of the stage on which she had set a pair of shears. Members of the audience then took turns cutting off a piece of her clothing. Although she submitted herself to public exposure, in this case the emperor really did have new clothes. The title, is a double entendre. The “piece” in the title can refer to a piece of clothing or the performance piece as a musical composition is sometimes referred to as a piece. The piece is also topical and political referencing the objectification of women, which, though it hasn't disappeared, was omnipresent in the James Bond days of 1965. I might mention that a retrospective of Yoko Ono's early work is presently on exhibit at the MOMA.