I may not know much about art, but I know what I shan’t pay for. E.g., an afternoon of separating individual grains of rice. But better and more scholarly persons than me will pay to separate individual grains of rice so long as Marina Abramovic, the Elvis of performance art, is supervising.
This repetitive work, said Australian critics when they experienced it last year, was “transportive”, “mystical” and “balming”. I’m pretty sure that two of these words are made-up. I’m pretty sure that Abramovic, a former communist who persuades well-to-do Westerners that there is reward in paying to perform tedious labour in a draughty room, is having a lend.
Or, I did suspect Abramovic of enjoying a long joke at the expense of humourless tossers right up until yesterday, when some vile and clumsy passages from her forthcoming memoir were revealed. Only a thick person could say these things.
We can suspect an artist whose oeuvre of happenings reads like a particularly good scene from ‘70s Woody Allen — she has set herself on fire, eaten a kilo of honey, bumped nakedly into her naked boyfriend at the Venice Biennale — of being in control. No one enacts this sort of tedious, apparently autobiographical stuff without great cynicism, right?
Wrong. In news to hand, the artist may herself be as meticulously tedious as her celebrated works. In an ugly and nakedly racist paragraph from the unreleased Walk Through Walls, Abramovic looks to be as guileless as her most enthusiastic critics.
I don’t really care to reproduce the artist’s horrid comments about Australia’s indigenous peoples here. They are, in any case, the sort of thing you might hear from your most brutally stupid relative, and are certainly available for review today in the world’s every cultural publication. Many are reviewing Abramovic’s comments, for which she has apologised and, reportedly, deleted from the forthcoming publication.
Of course, people are right to be alarmed by this tripe. It reads like the worst violation of the greediest ethnographer, and even in “apologising” for reproducing her thoughts, first recorded in a personal journal in 1979 during a trip to Pitjantjatjara country, she comes across as a turd. She apologises for saying really mean things about Australia’s indigenous peoples by saying really deferential things about Australia’s indigenous peoples. Apparently, these “primitives” can only be reviled or revered.
So, yes, of course, it’s shocking, and even though I’m no great fan of Calling Out Prejudice Online, I’d say that Abramovic has earnt this bollocking. But so does our current culture, really. This is an era that has elevated the confessional form. We demand autobiography and candour and make a woman whose most famous work is herself the most important artist in the West. We want forthright people to speak boldly. But we also want to approve of what they say.
It was not so long ago that Sydney writer Kath Kenny criticised a culture that demands confession, by women in particular. Australian artist Sophia Hewson, a sort of baby Abramovic, had exhibited a three-minute video work in which she depicted herself being raped. For the piece Are you ok Bob?, Hewson had asked a man previously unknown to her to visit her vagina. She filmed her face in this “rape simulation”. Kenny said that this trend in art — and there are loads of artsy women working in the autobiographical tradition of Louise Bourgeois — was one also seen in the broader culture. Women, she said, had come to speak overwhelmingly of their own trauma.
In my view, this was a point that urgently needed making. Both as a consumer and a producer of culture, I had long been frustrated that “lived experience” seemed to be the primary register of female excellence. Whether writers, artists or broadcasters, women were, it seemed to me, apprehended most seriously when they spoke of something being done to them. In fact, any representative of a “minority” had their range of expression limited to experience, and never analysis. Nowhere has this been illustrated more clearly than in the recent Democratic Convention, where white men were the only people who had the privilege of objectivity. Muslims, women, black Americans and LGBT people are not so much “empowered” as they are obliged to speak only of the things that they know.
When Kenny began to make this point about the limited possibilities of confessional communication, she was, quite perplexingly, accused of “silencing women”. I felt sure that she was attempting to enlarge their range of expression, and wrote a very long-winded piece about it. I won’t trouble you by recounting all those grains of rice right now, but I will say that I believe that in permitting the confessional form such a place of privilege, we have permitted people like Abramovic to say some stupid shit. If we keep on asking for, and even paying for, candour, then candour is what we’re gonna get.
Abramovic has been permitted to over-extend herself. Few people stop her torrent of confession, and thumbs up to Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art which last year announced its plans to abandon a retrospective when the artist made some unscheduled rice-counting stops in Australia. Just as there’s no one to tell Marina when to shut it, there’s no one to tell many writers, especially female ones, when to quit droning on about their own “lived experience”. The personal effect of this is that writers, having revealed intimate details of sexual abuse early in their careers, are forced, psychologically and economically, into silence. The wider cultural effect is that many consumers have come to believe that the personal is entirely political.
Sometimes, the personal is not instructive at all. Sometimes, the personal should remain personal. Not every thought one has should be elaborated; not every grain of rice deserves public scrutiny. Not every revelation of personal trauma or personal hatred is therapeutic. Sometimes — often — it is better to recount the world with recourse to broader logic than it is with intimate feelings.
We cannot continue to demand raw experience, then have a tantrum when the fare we have ordered is not cooked to our liking. Abramovic has simply served up the same thing she has since the seventies: a mildly mediated version of the self. If we don’t like it, it’s kind of our problem. We did keep nagging her to show herself.
The self, whether female or otherwise, is really not the key to universal understanding. Or, not the only one at any rate. Sometimes, it’s a useful way to view things. More often, it is better left to fade in the pages of a personal diary.