Arthur Danto on sitting with Marina Abramovic

Arthur Danto

Arthur Danto, author of The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art, Narration and Knowledge, Unnatural Wonders: Essays from the Gap Between Art and Life and many other titles, recently wrote a piece for The Stone, the New York Times new philosophy blog, about his experience participating in the recently closed Marina Abramovic exhibition. The exhibit featured the performance artist seated in a chair on the floor of an atrium in the museum across from an empty chair, in which anyone can sit for any length of time. It was a performance that, in the words of Danto, “captured the imagination of everyone interested in contemporary art.”

Here is an excerpt from Danto’s description of his experience:

Since I now use a wheelchair to get around, someone wheeled me opposite Marina and the chair was removed. My session as part of the work had begun.

Marina looked beautiful in an intense red garment whose hem formed a circle on the floor, and her black hair was braided to one side. I was unclear as to what I was to do in the charmed space across from her other than to maintain a silence. She is in fact a wonderful talker, full of wit and a kind of Balkan humor. But this performance is very much a dialogue de sourds — a dialog of the deaf. Communication is on another plane. I ventured to signal “hi” with a wave, which aroused in Marina a weak smile.

At this point, something striking took place. Marina leaned her head back at a slight angle, and to one side. She fixed her eyes on me without — so it seemed — any longer seeing me. It was as if she had entered another state. I was outside her gaze. Her face took on the translucence of fine porcelain. She was luminous without being incandescent. She had gone into what she had often spoken of as a “performance mode.” For me at least, it was a shamanic trance — her ability to enter such a state is one of her gifts as a performer. It is what enables her to go through the physical ordeals of some of her famous performances. I felt indeed as if this was the essence of performance in her case, often with the added element of physical danger.

Danto’s post received so many comments that he had a follow-up post in which he took one reader’s questions that explored some of the more philosophical and abstract issues raised by Abramovic’s performance piece. In responding to the question of whether or not performance art is really art at all, Danto cites his essay “The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art.” Danto writes:

This famous design of the universe and its degrees of reality was clearly constructed to put art in its place — the domain of illusions, shadows, dreams. The artist is cognitively useless. And yet the Greeks wanted to build their curriculum on mere poetry – on “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey”! I treat this in my essay “The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art….”

But a performance is not the imitation of an action, but the action itself. It is art and reality in one….

Many people thought that Marina Abramovic’s act of sitting across from them was a case of the emperor’s new clothes. But for most who sat with her, the act was fraught with meaning. It was in a sense a sacrifice on the artist’s part, an ordeal, an immense favor conferred on those who sat with her.

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