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Monday, May 31, 2010

Living Art

I've been reading a new column in the New York Times Opinionator blogs called, the Stone. It's a forum for contemporary philosophers to do what most contemporary philosophers now do exclusively: examine culture. Culture here usually refers to current music or reality shows, but in this particular post: Columbia professor, Arthur C. Danto, examines the work of a performance artist, Marina.

Performance art is not for the faint of heart; the acts themselves usually involve, among other things, nudity, public defecation, and various forms of humiliation, all in a semi-public setting. What all of these rituals are supposed to prove is a matter of great debate among advocates. At any rate, the experience is seen as a great deal more dynamic than looking at a painting. The subtleties of the Flemish painters may wain next to the conceit of a woman urinating in a cup in front of you.

Marina's act involves her sitting in a chair across from an empty seat in which you are invited to sit and observe. That's all. She is fully clothed, so this is a relatively modest act as far as performance art goes. Nothing is said, though you are free to throw some dialog her way. Some reportedly have sat across from Marina for hours. Professor Danto reports that his experience bordered on the spiritual.

He describes Marina as becoming "incandescent," a work of art undergoing a change at the hands of the sculptor. This, he counters, is a delicate experience made all the more precious because we are invited to participate in it. We may become part of Marina's piece, so to speak.

Danto has written extensively on the interface of philosophy and art. Though I cannot here hope to elaborate on the subtleties of his work (I haven't read most of it), he has concentrated on the loss of "beauty" as a standard criteria of modern art. This paradigm shift was largely ushered in by the Modernist movement. What really seems to be missing in this scenario--and I think Danto would agree--is a sense of transcendence in the pieces themselves. An "ontic-referent" is a term in currency among theologians. It simply means something of our world, like a painting or a book, which points to something greater, or divine. Modernism sought to divest art of this kind of thing. Here is the world in all its wretchedness, and no religious sentiment is left upon which to lean. This is a purer expression of reality, and beauty is something for which we are now too mature.

Perhaps this is how people see Marina's act. In a world of such austere criteria, a woman sitting across from you in a chair may well be a religious experience. I can't help but think that we've lost something vital...

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