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?

Chris Burden

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 short, with conceptual art.

Chris Burden's Five Day Locker Piece is a direct antecedent to Blaine:

Chris Burden
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.

Yoko Ono

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.

David Blaine

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.


Anonymous said...

Kind of begs the question of who the art is for. What you seem to be saying is if the public doesn't get it, it's the public's fault (which, by extension, makes you seem to say you are better than the public since you "get it.")

Joni Mitchell, no stranger to pushing boundaries, said, "I don't want to make art that only ten people in the world can understand."

You also leave no room for personal taste. It's not always about jealousy, or stupidity, or whatever other hateful label you want to apply. Do you like all music? Of course not. All movies? Ditto. Some people don't like David Blaine, well, just because he's not their cup of tea (or aquarium water). Yet if they state that, you and your ilk pull out the "jealous" or "you don't get it" label as if everyone must like him because you do.


I've seen how you handle disagreements on your blog in the past (PeaceLove is a misnomer if ever I've seen one...), so I'm curious what the tap dance will be.

Anonymous said...

P.S. I'd be right shocked if ever the words "I might have been mistaken" were ever to leave your keyboard (sincerely, of course).


Anonymous Jr. said...

hello Anonymous, it's your son.

The anti-Blaine crowd has long been a crowd of empty, mindless, crowing. They now have a new schtick that goes like this: "Oh, I see...if I don't like Blaine that means I'm 'jealous' or that I 'don't get it'" They think this is an argument of high-cleverness. And, granted, if you think acting put-upon is a strong argument then maybe you would agree with them.

You see the thing is, I've never seen anyone, anywhere called "jealous" or anything like that just for saying, "You know, Blaine just isn't for me." I'd love it if you could point out (specifically) where that's happening. Occasionally when someone says how much Blaine "sucks," or how he has "no talent," or how he's "boring" (not "I find him boring" but "He is boring"), or how dumb people are if they like him -- sometimes those people are labeled jealous. Rather accurately in fact.

RE: This post. The major difference between Blaine and the performance artists mentioned is that Blaine isn't obscure. He's been a cultural presensce for ten years. The only reason people knew Yoko was because she married John. Not only that but people who admire Yoko Ono or Burden do so because of the ways they challenge convention. To me, challenging convention is easy. It doesn't take much to do something that's never been done before in a world of infinite possibilities. "I'm going to screech into a microphone and pound on a bucket with a chicken leg," might seem like great-art to some, but to me it's just irrelevant. The much more difficult thing to do is to work within the constructs and yet still do something original. That, in my opinion, is what makes Blaine so special.

Anonymous said...

I have no son. :-)

Maybe I just read things differently than some. Maybe I check context differently. When I read, "Blaine sucks," I interpret as, "he doesn't work for me at all." That's how people talk when they don't like something. That's what they say. "Do you want to go get some sushi?" "Nah, sushi sucks."

Does that mean respondent #2 thinks sushi has no value and that the questioner is stupid for liking it? Of course not. That's what people say when they dislike something.

I'll agree there is a subset of people who are jealous of Blaine's success, but as I've pointed out in other writings other places, for the jealousy argument to make sense, the same person who claims not to like Blaine would have to verifiably claim to dislike every other successful magician. And I'm betting that subset is waaay smaller than you, PeaceLove (yeah, right...) and a few other bloggers are claiming.

I think there is a linguistic/semantic confusion here, along with one other factor: Blaine brought a lot of people in a certain age range to magic, so any criticism of him is considered heresy.

Anonymous said...

P.S. (again): Note that nowhere in my comments do I state my opinion of Mr. Blaine. And I'll bet dollars to doughnuts you've already decided what my opinion is.

PeaceLove said...

Thanks for all the comments, Anon. Anon, Jr. makes the distinction between not liking something and dismissing it out of hand. (It seems to me I've had this argument before, about Hip Hop). In general, when people say something "sucks" that's pretty much a complete dismissal. That's why, "Chinese food sucks" sounds silly, while "child abuse sucks" does not. I for one do not say something "sucks" as a critical opinion; I only say it if it really, really does.

I think it's a bit of a stretch to say that the large number of magicians who say "Blaine sucks!" and other, much less friendly things, are just expressing their personal opinion while respecting those who disagree. If the magic boards are any indication, many people are filled with geniune hatred for Blaine. It's a reaction worth examining, at any rate.

You say that any criticism of Blaine is considered heresy. I actually think the opposite is true. As far as I know, I'm one of the only people to suggest that Blaine is the most important magician since Houdini. John LeBlanc has also come out and annointed him the new Houdini. Other than that, most magicians I know either hate Blaine or don't care much about him one way or the other.

I have no opinion one way or another about your opinion of Blaine, by the way.

If anyone wants to write a serious critical analysis of Blaine from the standpoint that he is NOT talented, that he does NOT have a clear point, that he's actually more hot air than purpose, I'd love to read it. Thus far, the attacks on Blaine have been either 1) personal, which makes them critically irrelevant, or 2) upset that he uses the medium of television to enhance his magic by showing the effects as they appear to the spectators, and not necessarily as the appear to magicians, and 3) upset that he's not doing enough magic, which is not Blaine's problem since he no longer calls himself a magician.

I believe that the years of bad magic that preceded Blaine have made it tough for him to get a fair airing in the media, for whom the term "magician" is often dismissive or even derogatory. On the other hand, when they no longer want to use that term, they use the equally dismissive term "stuntman" -- as if staying underwater for seven days on public display was somehow similar to the work done by professional stuntmen. Either way, I think the media has a strong anti-Blaine bias. They cover him because his work is very public and makes good copy, but I've hardly ever seen any appreciative or admiring coverage, much less any serious consideration of his body of work.

As for my ability to admit my mistakes, please see my next post in which I admit to a whopper.

Anonymous said...

" In general, when people say something "sucks" that's pretty much a complete dismissal. That's why, "Chinese food sucks" sounds silly, while "child abuse sucks" does not."

I think we've jus hit on the problem. I hear things like "Chinese food sucks" all the time and I accept it for what it means - the person who said it doesn't like Chinese more, no less. You, on the other hand, by your own admission, dismiss it as "silly" unless it's something as substantive as child abuse.

Watch a t.v. show or a movie some time - "sucks" is used idiomatically for "not my preference." In fact, I haven't heard your usage of the word except from you. If you wish to redefine it, don't blame others if things get confused.

PeaceLove said...

Hi Anne,

We'll have to agree to disagree on the general usage of "sucks," I think. If I say, "How about Chinese food?" and my friend (who doesn't like Chinese) replies, "Chinese food sucks!" I know that he's either using the term in an ironic way (in that he knows perfectly well that it doesn't suck, he just doesn't like it) or he sounds like a reactionary goober. Regardless of the specific wording, there's no question that Blaine sparks a tremendous amount of outright hostility in the magic community. I say look within.

PeaceLove said...

I want to also quickly address a fairly common point hinted at by anonymous in his first comment. Serious critical analysis requires an assumption that works of art are worth analyzing, and that not everyone is qualified to do so. There's nothing wrong with the contention that people with knowledge and experience are in a better position to evaluate works than those without such background. This is not an elitist view, it's a pro-education view.

Obviously, educated critics can and do disagree all the time. But they tend to take the work they are evaluating seriously, whether they like it or not. This is a very different stance from the outright dismissal, nay, hostility, that greets Blaine so regularly.

Don't like Citizen Kane? Or War and Peace? Or La Traviata? No problem, everyone's entitled to their opinion. But try to announce that "Citizen Kane sucks" or "War and Peace sucks" and it'll be abundantly clear to people on both sides of the fence that yours is not an informed opinion.

Anonymous said...

"Don't like Citizen Kane? Or War and Peace? Or La Traviata? No problem, everyone's entitled to their opinion. But try to announce that "Citizen Kane sucks" or "War and Peace sucks" and it'll be abundantly clear to people on both sides of the fence that yours is not an informed opinion."

No, it will be abundantly clear that whoever said it is using "sucks" like most people do, that is, to mean, "I don't like it," rather than your contrived definition that I've only heard from you.

I'll pull some uses from pop culture and share them with you. Not that I expect you ever to give in on this.

PeaceLove said...

Jeez, anon, I think you're getting a little too wrapped up in an irrelevant semantic argument. My point was that the magic community by and large is either dismissive of Blaine or outright hostile. That's all.

I do think the overall treatment of Blaine by the magic community, especially in the past, really sucks. And you can quote me on that.

Anonymous said...

See, that's what you soon as someone makes a point that undermines your argument, you change the argument. My point is that when people say "Blaine sucks" they are saying they don't like what he does. You redefined the work. Now you're backpedaling. But reading your blog comments, that's what you do. My argument stands. "Blaine sucks," "Chinese food sucks," etc., are all valid.

And your redefinition of the word "sucks" sucks.

PeaceLove said...

Jeez, Brother anon, I'm not changing the argument. My argument about the definition of "sucks" was a sideline, confined to the comments. I never claimed that everyone who hates Blaine expresses it by saying he sucks. Had that been my argument, then your point would be valid. The fact is that lots of magicians express their contempt, dismissal, and hatred of Blaine in lots of ways, of which "Blaine sucks" is just one. So it doesn't really matter whose definition of "sucks" is correct, since the vitriol is expressed in myriad ways.

I still think "sucks" is more often used the way I define it. But since usage is notoriously slippery (slang varies by background, geographical location, and a million other factors) I'm sure both usages are correct.

The Magic Utopian said...

OK. He may be a conceptual artist. Though, conceptual art, in its etiology in the 60s, rejected commercialism. Rejecting commercialism is certainly not David Blaine's style.

I'll play along with this idea because it makes sense. Though, I sort of wish he would drop the magic becasuse it does not seem to be in harmony with the conceptual or performance art genre that he is creating. Unless he's catching bullets.

Good blog. Thanks!

PeaceLove said...

The question of Blaine's current relationship to magic is an interesting one. I think his magic is still a powerful tool he uses to keep his relationship with his fans tight. Even though he only did a few effects in that last special, they were powerful effects that helped bind him to his audience.

Blaine is a man of the people; all the mythologyzing of his stunts needs to be grounded by the one-on-one magic.

tripolimom said...

Benghazi -

Read with interest your comments on Blaine and subsequent entries disagreeing with your position. As a non-magician who is acquainted with magicians, I think of him as a showman, but nothing very special. I don't agree that to find him less than sparkling, indicates jealousy.

PeaceLove said...

I apply the "jealousy" tag mainly to magicians who bash him as a no-talent hack. I'm sure there are those who think he's talented but unexciting. But most magicians I've encountered who don't like Blaine REALLY don't like him -- and I'm always suspicious of such deep-seated hatred.

Most laypeople (especially those who aren't acquainted with magicians!) find him pretty stunning, in my experience. Certainly, Blaine has an extraordinary gift for selling an effect. As a magician, I think I've learned more about creating astonishment from Blaine than just about any other magician I've ever encountered.

Blainefan said...

Hello PeaceLove,

I'm really happy to have found your blog. I'm a french amateur magician and fan of David Blaine, and I must say I agree with almost everything you have written about him. Indeed, I became really interested in magic after I watched his first special.

"As a magician, I think I've learned more about creating astonishment from Blaine than just about any other magician I've ever encountered."->you defined me here...

However, one of your remarks about "Drowned Alive" reminds me of a question I have had in my head for some time : "It also seemed pretty clear to me that his failure at the end was not planned" : however, if you look carefully on the split spades deck that David released just BEFORE his special, the extra card with his logo contains the words DROWNED and SAVED. Thus, I always wondered if they were hints suggesting that everything was planned. By the way, I read someone about the special saying "lke everything on television, it must have been well planned"...And as a final argument, one could argue that before entering the sphere, David knew how much time he could stay underwater, what was his personal record...
What do you think about all that ?

PeaceLove said...

Salut, mon ami!

I doubt very much that Blaine planned to fail. I think he had almost certainly managed to hold his breath for that long, and I assume he had supplemental oxygen pumped into the sealed tank to breathe before he did the breath holding climax, exactly as he did--openly--when he handily broke the world record for breath-holding with supplemental oxygen on Oprah a few months ago.

But I'm quite sure Blaine had never spent 7 days submerged in the tank first, an endurance feat that would have diminished anyone's stamina in unpredictable ways.