Monday, May 15, 2006
Burden to Ono to Blaine
In the comments to my recent MCJ on Blaine post, JB makes an important point about Blaine's willingness to sacrifice almost everything for his art. The magic boards are full of skeptics trying to convince themselves and others that the whole aquarium stunt was just a trick (maybe a seven-day 3D holographic projection while Blaine sat at home watching cable?), but it's quite obvious that he essentially did what he said he did. It also seemed pretty clear to me that his failure at the end was not planned, that he was geniunely moved by the love from the crowd (those tears were real), and that he really does undergo extraordinary mental, physical, and spiritual experiences while carrying out his performances. How could you spend 60 hours in a block of ice, 44 days fasting in a suspended glass box, or 7 days on public display underwater and NOT learn something?
In a way, Blaine really belongs in the category of "conceptual artist," with an obvious influence being the artist Chris Burden. Burden is most famous for 1971's Shoot, in which he had a friend, yes, shoot him in the arm. Although it was ostensibly a commentary about Vietnam and our culture of violence, Burden's personal exploration of pain and death has resonances far beyond the merely political.
Fortunately, Blaine seems uninterested in physical mutilation as self-expression. Unlike, say, Criss Angel, Blaine never reveals the slightest trace of machismo, or even body centrism. He trains intensively to prepare for his stunt performances, but his goal is never to punish his body. It's no coincidence, of course, that he displays his body at every turn as a way to create aesthetic resonance in his work via the physical beauty of his body. Nevertheless, Blaine seems like the kind of guy who would willingly lose fifty pounds, or gain it, if it facilitated a performance.
Can you see Criss Angel deliberately losing fifty pounds off that sculpted body in order to survive a long, drawn-out performance? Angel is much more of a magician and stuntman than Blaine. Blaine is concerned mainly with head spaces and spiritual ideas...in short, with conceptual art.
Chris Burden's Five Day Locker Piece is a direct antecedent to Blaine:
Five Day Locker Piece
University of California, Irvine:
April 26-30, 1971
I was locked in locker number 5 for five consecutive days and did not leave the locker during this time. The locker measured two feet high, two feet wide, and three feet deep. I stopped eating several days prior to entry. The locker directly above me contained five gallons of bottled water; the locker below me contained an empty five gallon bottle.
I don't know if Five Day Locker Piece is a work of conceptual art, performance art, or political theater, but there's something very beautiful about that description, about the symmetry of the bottles above and below, and about the way the whole work is constrained and contained. If Burden were performing that in my neck of the woods, I might be drawn to pay those lockers a visit, just to be in the presence of an ongoing work of Art.
That same energy pervades Blaine's work. For Drowned Alive, Blaine added a powerful visual component. The sight of this extraordinary guy magnified by the curve of the tank was tremendously evocative. I wish I could have been in New York when Blaine was in that aquarium. I would have loved to visit him.
Yet Blaine has distinguished himself by accomplishing something none of the conceptual artists of the past managed; he figured out how to become famous and beloved before he began his stunts. He became a celebrity by making friends with the world, by bringing joy and wonder into peoples' lives. As a result, Blaine brings a tremendous amount of goodwill to the table, not just from the intelligensia and the art-academy elites, but from "regular" people as well.
Long before she met John Lennon, Yoko Ono was a fairly well-known member of the Fluxus art movement, a "famous for fifteen people" conceptual artist in the elite art world. I recently watched a moving short film of Yoko Ono's Cut Piece, a 1965 performance in which Ono sat on the stage at Carnegie Hall and invited audience members to come up and cut off pieces of her clothing. The piece encompasses many themes -- about gender, violence, sensuality and sexuality, among others. Its context, the rarified art world of New York, ensured that it would be analyzed and dissected, that viewers would attempt to extract meaning from the work. That it would be taken seriously.
The fact that Cut Piece has a frivolous, occasionally playful quality does not detract from its essential seriousness as a work of art. The pre-Lennon Ono is not playing games, and she's not wasting her time (and a perfectly good dress) for nothing. She has something to say, and this is her way of communicating it.
As soon as Ono hooked up with Lennon, and her fame grew exponentially outside of the intelligensia, the criticism began. The experimental works on which she had earned her reputation (and totally captivated the most cerebral, difficult of the Beatles) were exposed to a larger audience unschooled in the language of conceptual and performance art. The mainstream turned against Ono with astonishing viciousness (the fact that she was widely -- and incorrectly -- perceived as having caused the breakup of the Beatles didn't help). She was attacked as a no-talent hack, a shameless self-promoter who simply rode the coattails of her superstar husband.
Interestingly, Blaine is in a similar situation; his fame has exposed his conceptual art to a society unprepared to take it seriously.
David Blaine is in a no-win situation with critics. The moment he branches off into truly unique and daring territory, he is maligned as a shameless self-promoter. It's as if now that Blaine is famous he is no longer allowed to do conceptual art. I don't know if the New York art world embraces Blaine, but they certainly should. Of course, if they are as driven by jealousy as the magic world they probably hate him, too.
Andy of MCJ nailed it in the post I cited at the beginning; the vitriol directed at Blaine tells us more about the haters than about the Artist. Chris Burden was widely ridiculed for Shoot, since it's easier to dismiss and ignore than to wonder why an intelligent person would have himself shot as an artistic statement. Yoko Ono's screeching and wailing performances are similarly reviled as "bad music," a stance which so obviously misses the point that it hardly deserves to be considered as serious criticism.
David Blaine's every move is centered around presenting a vision of humanity that is generous and expansive, and his work encompasses some of the deepest, most personal exploration imaginable, presented in the most public possible manner. And yet he is presumptively dismissed by a large swath of the chattering class, including many people who would embrace Blaine as a genius -- if only he were an penniless conceptual artist submerged in an aquarium in an uptown gallery.
There is an astonishing moment in the Drowned Alive special, in which Blaine is interviewing Aaron Ralston, the 27 year-old hiker who cut off his own arm in order to free himself from a boulder that had him trapped. Ralston recounts how he began to lose all hope of rescue. He considered cutting off his own arm, but he only had a cheap, lightweight knife that would never make it through his bone.
Then Ralston discovered that he could get the boulder under which he was trapped to move. The young hiker knew that he would not be able to get it off his arm, but he realized that he could use the boulder to crush his bones, which would facilitate cutting off his arm.
As he pulled the boulder over his arm, Ralston relates, the pain was so excruciating that his very definition of pain had to be recalibrated. And yet, he claims that it was also the most liberating moment of his life. He literally felt reborn in that moment, and empowered. Ralston knew in that moment that he would save himself and live.
This is the key moment in the Drowned Alive special, since it describes the transmutation of exteme situations into profound spiritual epiphanies. David Blaine is a spiritual seeker, a man who seeks the light at the end of his carefully constructed tunnels. And he invites his audience to watch his every move, to participate with their love and encouragement.
David Blaine did it all on his own. He is a famous, rich conceptual artist and he definitely has something to say. He uses magic as one of his expressive tools, but he also uses endurance "stunts," which are really a form of performance art.
Blaine doesn't talk about meaning very much, except in the most general terms. He says he likes to push himself, to explore the limits of his abilities. But he never engages in deep philosophical or aesthetic discussions about his themes and purpose, which leads shallow naysayers to conclude that he has none.
Utter foolishness. Blaine is way too smart to punish himself for nothing.
He is also regularly dismissed as a con man, or a shameless publicity hound; he tortures himself with these stunts, the saying goes, and laughs all the way to the bank.
David Blaine doesn't need to do such things anymore. He doesn't need the money and he doesn't need the grief.
His fame is entirely earned. He has performed some of the most extreme conceptual art ever, and done so with grand showmanship, and a beautiful and inspiring sense of theater. Best of all (and most annoying to the Blaine bashers), Blaine never tries to ascribe any huge meaning to his performance pieces. He just does them and lets the world react.
That, my friends, is High Art.