Marina Abramović , An Artist’s Life Manifesto

Marina Abramovic’s L.A. MOCA gala, and the out­rage inspired by it, was cer­tainly one of the biggest sto­ries of last year in art. Back in Novem­ber, leg­endary avant-garde dancer Yvonne Rainer denounced the spec­ta­cle — which was titled “An Artist’s Life Man­i­festo,” and involved din­ers eat­ing around nude female mod­els draped with skele­tons and other mod­els serv­ing as human cen­ter­pieces —  in an open let­ter. Sarah Wookey, a dancer who refused to par­tic­i­pate, penned her own open let­ter explain­ing why she had opted out: because she saw the event as eco­nomic exploita­tion of hope­ful young dancers, who were com­pen­sated only min­i­mally for their participation.

At the end of Decem­ber, L.A. MOCA released a slickly pro­duced black-and-white video about the gala, which, in addi­tion to mak­ing the whole thing look strangely like a per­fume com­mer­cial, will prob­a­bly do noth­ing to dis­perse this con­tro­versy. It begins with shots of the rich and famous atten­dees (Eli Broad, Will Fer­rell, Gwen Ste­fani) on the red car­pet, grin­ning for the paparazzi, as Abramovic’s voice intones that art is the “oxy­gen of our soci­ety.” Then we see guests putting on their white lab coats to eat around the freaky human party dec­o­ra­tions, an omi­nous score giv­ing the deca­dent imagery an unmistakable

Eyes Wide Shut” vibe. The film ends with Deb­o­rah Harry per­form­ing “Heart of Glass”, before she and Abramovic cut into a woman-shaped cake. (It leaves out the part where mem­bers of the audi­ence chanted “Vio­lence against women!” upon wit­ness­ing this spectacle.)

But really, it is Abramovic’s nar­ra­tion, in which she explains her think­ing behind “An Artist’s Life Man­i­festo,” that might throw fresh fuel on the fire. She dis­tances her­self from the gov­ern­ment art patron­age of her native Europe, indi­cat­ing that she prefers the Amer­i­can way, where “indus­try” sup­ports art. She points out that the Renais­sance was made pos­si­ble by “Popes, aris­to­crats, or kings” (um, Marina: patron­age by “Popes, aris­to­crats, or kings” is also gov­ern­ment patron­age), and then she says that she thinks an artist should be a “ser­vant.” But not just any kind of ser­vant, she goes on to say, but one who pur­sues a pure vision and stands above all eco­nomic con­sid­er­a­tions (like pay­ing the par­tic­i­pants in your performance?)

So, to sum up: peo­ple were mad at Abramovic for eco­nom­i­cally exploit­ing her per­form­ers, and she’s talk­ing about how much she appre­ci­ates the wis­dom of the free mar­ket and/or the virtues of the pre-modern sys­tem of rule by kings. At the very least, you would say that this is pretty tone deaf, given the con­tro­versy. We’ve taken the lib­erty of tran­scrib­ing her whole nar­ra­tion (pre­serv­ing her charm­ingly idio­syn­cratic Eng­lish, for the most part):

I see the art as oxy­gen of our soci­ety. I come from Europe and we have a com­pletely dif­fer­ent sys­tem of spon­sor­ing art. Gov­ern­ments give money for cul­ture. The sys­tem here is com­pletely dif­fer­ent. Which is quite inter­est­ing, to look in the past and think about who actu­ally spon­sored the cul­ture. If you look in Renais­sance time, any of these great artists — it was Popes, aris­to­crats, or kings who actu­ally sup­port these kinds of artists and make it pos­si­ble to sup­port these mon­u­men­tal works.

Today, we don’t have kings but we have indus­try, we have busi­ness, we have banks. The kind of peo­ple who actu­ally have a sub­stan­tial amount of money, who can sup­port cul­ture. I see the func­tion of an artist as a ser­vant. I think that art have to be shared, art have to be dis­turb­ing, art have to ask ques­tions, art have to pre­dict the future, in some cases, and have many lay­ers of meaning.

When I was ask­ing to do this kind of gala, I was really con­cerned with what should be my con­tri­bu­tion, that I actu­ally don’t make any com­pro­mise to my work and do some­thing which is dif­fer­ent. I don’t think that I should only pro­vide enter­tain­ment. I have to cre­ate sit­u­a­tion where we are actu­ally not at ease and you come with an expe­ri­ence that you didn’t have before.

I think that today we have so much con­cern about art as a com­mod­ity, with art mar­ket, with the times we are liv­ing in. I think that the con­text of the artist is very impor­tant to clar­ify, so I had the need to write this manifesto.

[Refer­ring to Deb­bie Harry] Both of us are per­for­mance artists, and we both work with the pub­lic. It a way, offer­ing the body for the pub­lic, that is the ulti­mate ges­ture. [Appar­ently refer­ring the audi­ence] They are not just look­ing into the spec­ta­cle, they are part of the spec­ta­cle, and that’s a big difference.’

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