“The nineteenth-century critic Walter Pater said that ‘all art aspires to the condition of music’. This reveals a great deal […] about an historical tendency which was to come to fruition in the twentieth century. [I]t is an appeal to pure imagination, by-passing reason. Such work […] sets out to dominate, even overwhelm, flooding the spectator/hearer with sensory impressions of different kinds. It is not meant as information but experience.”
—Adrian Henri, Total Art (London: Thames and Hudson, 1974)
Despite my usual sympathies for and attraction to the most off-the-wall musical experimentation, I have to confess that I’ve rarely been a fan of performance art. A lot of it has always struck me as akin to adolescent posturing, something I was always ready to do in my own adolescence but grow increasingly wearier of as I sink further down into middle age. But since I profess to eschew judgment in order to gain a greater variety of experience from music, I have to admit that harboring such an opinion is somewhat hypocritical and is based on personal preference rather than any substantive knowledge about the genre. So on Friday, to begin the process of rectifying this, I finally visited MoMA’s first ever performance art retrospective, The Artist is Present, which is an exhaustive representation of the work of Serbian-American Marina Abramović.
Much of it is pretty rough stuff involving self-mutilation, etc. But once I got past my initial revulsion and cynicism, I was deeply moved by her overall output, including some works that my inner critic would have called one-trick-pony sensationalistic or gratuitously exhibitionist. I don’t really want to give away the goods, since some of the work’s impact, at least as I experienced it, seems to rely on the audience not knowing what it is beforehand and being as vulnerable as the artist. But for anyone who cares about music, it is well worth the trek—it’s on display through the end of May.
You might ask why I specifically referenced music just now. Aside from the obvious fact that I’m writing these paragraphs for a web magazine about music (so why am I talking about a visual artist here?), much of Abramović’s work, like music, is about temporal matters. Metronomes are prominent in many of her early pieces and, as far as durational extremities go, she gives Morton Feldman and LaMonte Young a run for their money. But the connections to music go much deeper, I think, and strike at the core of what music is and can be.
Last Tuesday, 14 radio stations in Mogadishu, Somalia stopped broadcasting all music after being issued an ultimatum by fundamentalist insurgents. Some terrified broadcasters scrambled to replace station IDs with the sounds of animals, water flowing, engines, etc. Both the broadcasters and the insurgents conception of music apparently does not extend to the many musical compositions of the past century which employ such sounds. To make matters even more muddled, the besieged Somali government plans to retaliate against any radio station that replaces music with these other sounds, again eschewing that more expansive definition of music.
I’m not in any way trying to make light of these matters, which are profoundly disturbing to anyone who cares about not only music, but free expression and personal dignity. But I bring it up here to posit that any definition which is limiting ultimately runs the risk of being censorious. I shudder to think of how those crazy Somali insurgents would respond to the Marina Abramović retrospective, and I am grateful to be living in a society where such a retrospective can be proudly displayed without incident in one of nation’s most prestigious venues for visual art. Last week, I shared my fears that we seem to live in a time where certain musical tools build perfectly adequate and sometimes excellent sonic realities, but that an over-reliance on the benefits of such tools can prevent us from pondering things that such tools cannot make possible. Abramović reminds us of the possibilities inherent in work that goes beyond the tools that produced it. And perhaps if musicians experience her work, whether their aesthetic reaction to it is ultimately positive or negative, a message will be relayed to them about what art can mean. Indeed art is what liberates us, which is why those who seek to undermine personal liberty feel so threatened by it.