Saturday, April 23, 2005

Acting unfair: when art gets personal

there's no Getting used to Art.
changing the World is an impossibility.
In a World in wich EVerythinG Happens By chanCE, The Artist can at Best Win a Chance Victory Over chance. Every Artist/Animal For HimSelf, Like ShipwrecKed Sailors.

Jan Emiel Constant Fabre, Lyon 2001
The above words are written by Jan Fabre, theater and visual artist, during the performance Sanguis/Mantis (a book was created out of it, but it's not available in the usual internet stores), using his own blood extracted throughout the 8-hour event.
These are very powerful, scary thoughts. Every artist/animal for himself. Fabre writes this dressed in an armour created by him for this event: he is a knight turned insect, a strange, lonely creature trying to execute whatever he thought out for himself, making it difficult for himself, fighting his own weakness while underscoring it.

Is this sort of art fair?
It seems to go exactly the opposite way to what I wrote about in a previous post: here, the story is so dramatic, so full of meaning and painful narrative, it seems impossible to turn away, to consider it anything less than powerful. Do we have a choice as spectators?
This reminds me of another story, with another artist that uses his pain on stage - the dancer Bill T. Jones. Here is a description of the attack by the New Yorker's dance critic Arlene Critic against what she characterized as "victim art" (the controversy took place in 1995):
Refusing either to see or to review the production Still/Here by Bill T. Jones, one of the leading experimental and politically engaged dancers of the decade, Croce charged that as a black man and a victim of AIDS, Jones's use of autobiographical material made objective criticism impossible.
In her "anti-review", Croce asks the rhetorical question:
"If an artist paints a picture in his own blood, what does it matter if I think it's not a good picture?" Croce, (...) the most powerful dance critic in America, inevitably created a firestorm of controversy, and focused attention once again upon the conservative suspicion of contemporary autobiographically based performance, especially that created by members of racial or sexual minorities.
(quoted from Performance, a critical introduction, by Marvin Carlson, available at Amazon)

This is not as much about autobiography, as it is about showing the subject in a specific perspective, an unglorified one, or rather one that glorifies by creating a martyr. Interestingly, the word martyr originally meant "witness". Indeed, the suffering artist can be seen as a witness to a truth beyond the reality of the work of art. As spectators, we can accept it as a direct testimony to this truth (however ambiguous or esoteric this truth may be), or reject it, not as much because it isn't true, but because we feel it is a "private truth", one that hasn't got its place on the stage of an artwork.

But this mechanism goes far beyond body art or "victim art". It concerns any artist and spectator, because it is really about the role of intimacy and the non-public in the public event that is a work of art. It is about our definitions of art, form, and public space. It is about what we find important to share, and what are the possible/acceptable ways we find to do it. It can be the artist's blood on paper, or a photo of someone's cat, or a painting of a white square on a white background, but the question for me remains: does it impress me - touch me, as art. And why would it matter if it touched me as something different? Would it really be unfair? I wouldn't say so, as long as I have the possibility of saying: "Thank you for the moving performance, Mr.Fabre. Unfortunately, as a show, I found it boring."

It might seem like we are in some extremely modern, yet unchartered territory here. On the contrary. In Aristophanes' play The Frogs, considered to be the first theoretical comment about theater (405 BC), two famous playwrights, Aeschylus and Euripides, argue over who's dramatic writing is better:
Aeschylus: You wrapped [the heroes] in rags from old beggarmen's bags, to express their heroical woe, and reduce the spectator to tears of compassion.
Euripides: Well, what is the harm if I did?

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