Performance anxiety of influence

Burden crucifixion

PERFORMA 07 started this week (hence my horrible, horrible post title). I can’t wait to get my free haircut Saturday.

There’s been a slight rise in attention to 1970s “repellent performance pieces” online lately, and most specifically to Chris Burden’s Shoot, which was recently re-created by in Second Life:

Second Life

As well as on YouTube (both via vvork):

And Burden was a reference point in an extended discussion on Edward Winkleman’s site about what the limits in art are, yesterday and today.

In the current (November 8, 2007) issue of NYRB, Stephen Greenblatt reviewed ‘In Praise of the Whip: A Cultural History of Arousal’ (“Stroking,” p. 18, not online), a detailed overview of flagellation and masochism. Self-punishment and self-mutilation have links both to erotic arousal and religious devotion (and not just in Christianity). The article walks us through the logic behind the Christian practice, which saw the pain as a source of redemption and something pleasing to God.

“‘What better way to follow in their footsteps, what surer method of imitating Christ, than to suffer the blows that they suffered? To be sure, Damian concedes, in the case of these glorious predecessors, someone else was doing the whipping. But in a world in which Christianity has triumphed, we have to do the whipping for ourselves.’… Through what Largier admiringly calls his ‘mimetic intensity,’ the self-flagellator turns himself into a living image of the Lord.”

Greenblatt gives an account of one incident of self-whipping on a large scale:

“The spectacle caused a sensation in the strife-torn city. For a month all work in Perugia was halted, while the inhabitants gave themselves over to repentance, and by September a peace procession of self-flagellating penitents set out for Bologna. The processions, as chroniclers of the time reported, spread from city to city: ‘nobles and commoners, old and young, even five-year-old children took part.’ Warring factions were reconciled, cities declared peace, stolen goods were returned to their rightful owners, families stopped feuding, jails were opened, slaves freed, exiles allowed to return. ‘We could speak of a moment,’ Largier writes, ‘of social utopian catharsis.'”

Powerful stuff, this flagellation.

This idea of devoted self-flagellation as massive cultural movement shares a lot with that early ’70s outburst of mortifying performance art, Burden’s gunshot wounds and Volkswagen crucifixions included. The trials these artists put themselves under have been described and justified sometimes as quests for spirituality, and elsewhere defended by invoking faith in the purity of art. (Burden defines art as “a free spot in society, where you can do anything.”) And, given the broader political climate, there may also have been hope for a social utopian catharsis.

This comparison is not new but what interests me is why it happened then, flourished as a movement, and then stopped. The spiritual belief part requires a spiritual belief in something. It put its value in transcendence, which requires something to transcend to or for. That puts it in the direct linear arc that started 30 years earlier with Abstract Expressionism. This arc treated art as Art, something noble and itself transcendent. Art showed progress, it was teleological. Teleology promotes the pushing of boundaries.

Part of the transcendence factor came from belief in the validity of this question: How far can you go? Because pushing boundaries reveals Truths. This was a belief in Art that was doctrinal, a Modernist belief in Art as a mysterious presence just like God is a presence. The performance artists, like the Christian ascetics before them, hoped their suffering could be pleasing, not to collectors or even really to curators and critics, but to Art.

It turned out this _was_ as far as you could go. This was in fact the boundary. But what we found wasn’t actually the boundary itself, but that the boundary was an illusion, in the same way that progress in art was just a back-reading. There was no Art setting the boundaries, and Art was not there to be pleased when we found them. So we could stop looking.

From a bird’s eye view, it took the work of people like Cindy Sherman and David Byrne to go any further, if by further you can mean they found a way around this impasse by just stepping to the side of the arc. After performance, artists no longer treated art as something that could reveal truths. At best, art was something that could reveal lies. That Modernist model of progress died in the 70s, for a lot of reasons, but performance was there when it happened. Modernism ended in blood and pain.

Nauman the true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths

This contrast, by the way, made for a great episode of 30 Rock last Thursday. As Jack Donaghy helpfully explained to Liz Lemon, the only people left who push envelopes are letter writers, activists, and Howard Dean. Second piece of helpful advice: “Never go with a hippie to a second location.”

So times have changed. From here, this dangerous performance art seems, ironically, earnest and quaint, like the Geneva Conventions. Central performance art today is less about endurance than about a nexus of power and influence. Performances are expensive must see/can’t see events, like Aaron Young’s Greeting Card (dirt bikes, Jackson Pollock paintings), an opportunity for capital to fellate itself, so to speak, and thereby generate a feedback loop, which is where the art is.

Vanilla Ice

Which I mean in the nicest possible way. Just like many great Hollywood films are $200m budget spectaculars (the first Pirates, the Rings, 300), great art can be big budget and market responsive too. But blockbuster Hollywood doesn’t pass itself off as gritty ’70s auteur Hollywood.

Vezzoli Artforum image

Note how different a performance was this Performa’s keynote event, Francesco Vezzoli’s play reading at the Guggenheim. Though admission was never an option for the public, the event was heavily advertised to generate a crowd, and to convince the celebrity target audience this was the It must-attend event. The Times rightly reviewed it in the Style section instead of in Arts. Whatever it may have sought to expose or deflate the celebrity machine, it’s doubtful celebrity would have noticed, let alone cared, even the ones who stayed until the end. Art still denies that celebrity is bigger than it is. Celebrity is always going to win.


Or take Marina Abramovic’s seven-night stand at the first Performa in 2005, in which she reenacted many of the most infamous of the early performances, some of them her own: we saw her cut herself, burn herself, expose herself, masturbate for seven hours, and so on. I saw three of them. Since as good structuralists we read in differences, the meaning we take away from Abramovic’s Gugg re-performances is ‘high production values’—all the things that were missing in the original: expensive looking sets, lighting, hi-def video on flat screen TV’s, the large audience, the merchandise stand. A spectacular. It also fossilized these once controversial pieces, which I guess was the point of having it in a museum. It had more in common with 0100101110101101’s Second Life reenactment of Burden’s Shoot than with Abramovic’s original works. With the edge to it gone, it also lost much of its earlier spiritual aspect; the only benefits now were personal and professional. There was no calling to please a higher power.

This may also be why, when in 2004 one of his students allegedly pulled a gun as part of his final project, Chris Burden flipped out and quit his post at UCLA. This time, he knew Art wasn’t there to save him.



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