Marina Abramovic's L.A. MOCA gala, and the outrage inspired by it, was certainly one of the biggest stories of 2011 in art. If you will recall, back in November, legendary avant-garde dancer Yvonne Rainer denounced the spectacle — which was titled "An Artist's Life Manifesto," and involved diners eating around nude female models draped with skeletons and other models serving as human centerpieces — in an open letter. Sarah Wookey, a dancer who refused to participate, penned her own open letter explaining why she had opted out: because she saw the event as economic exploitation of hopeful young dancers, who were compensated only minimally for their participation.
At the end of December, L.A. MOCA released a slickly produced black-and-white video about the gala, which, in addition to making the whole thing look strangely like a perfume commercial, will probably do nothing to disperse this controversy. It begins with shots of the rich and famous attendees (Eli Broad, Will Ferrell, Gwen Stefani) on the red carpet, grinning for the paparazzi, as Abramovic's voice intones that art is the "oxygen of our society." Then we see guests putting on their white lab coats to eat around the freaky human party decorations, an ominous score giving the decadent imagery an unmistakable "Eyes Wide Shut" vibe. The film ends with Deborah Harry performing "Heart of Glass," before she and Abramovic cut into a woman-shaped cake. (It leaves out the part where members of the audience chanted "Violence against women!" upon witnessing this spectacle.)
But really, it is Abramovic's narration, in which she explains her thinking behind "An Artist's Life Manifesto," that might throw fresh fuel on the fire. She distances herself from the government art patronage of her native Europe, indicating that she prefers the American way, where "industry" supports art. She points out that the Renaissance was made possible by "Popes, aristocrats, or kings" (um, Marina: patronage by "Popes, aristocrats, or kings" is also government patronage), and then she says that she thinks an artist should be a "servant." But not just any kind of servant, she goes on to say, but one who pursues a pure vision and stands above all economic considerations (like paying the participants in your performance?)
So, to sum up: people were mad at Abramovic for economically exploiting her performers, and she's talking about how much she appreciates the wisdom of the free market and/or the virtues of the pre-modern system of rule by kings. At the very least, you would say that this is pretty tone deaf, given the controversy. We've taken the liberty of transcribing her whole narration (preserving her charmingly idiosyncratic English, for the most part):
I see the art as oxygen of our society. I come from Europe and we have a completely different system of sponsoring art. Governments give money for culture. The system here is completely different. Which is quite interesting, to look in the past and think about who actually sponsored the culture. If you look in Renaissance time, any of these great artists — it was Popes, aristocrats, or kings who actually support these kinds of artists and make it possible to support these monumental works.Today, we don't have kings but we have industry, we have business, we have banks. The kind of people who actually have a substantial amount of money, who can support culture. I see the function of an artist as a servant. I think that art have to be shared, art have to be disturbing, art have to ask questions, art have to predict the future, in some cases, and have many layers of meaning.
When I was asking to do this kind of gala, I was really concerned with what should be my contribution, that I actually don't make any compromise to my work and do something which is different. I don't think that I should only provide entertainment. I have to create situation where we are actually not at ease and you come with an experience that you didn't have before.
I think that today we have so much concern about art as a commodity, with art market, with the times we are living in. I think that the context of the artist is very important to clarify, so I had the need to write this manifesto.
[Referring to Debbie Harry] Both of us are performance artists, and we both work with the public. It a way, offering the body for the public, that is the ultimate gesture. [Apparently referring the audience] They are not just looking into the spectacle, they are part of the spectacle, and that's a big difference.
Here's the clip: