My parents and I had vastly different views about art, politics, religion and life. The older I got, the more they feared for my eternal soul. When we got together — uncomfortable, painful times — we didn’t have much we could safely talk about. The weather was just about the only thing we could talk about without ending up in a screaming match. My West Texas parents were obsessed by the humidity; they didn’t see how anybody could live anywhere but West Texas, since every other place was so humid.
Once, we watched one of my favorite movies, Nashville, on video. I thought they’d like it. After all, it had music and comedy and offbeat characters, and it moved quickly. Boy, was I wrong. They couldn’t get over the ending, when the Vietnam vet killed the country-and-western singer. It hadn’t made sense to them and that was all they could talk about.
“Why did he kill her?” my father asked. “She didn’t do anything to him.”
“Well, I think he had problems with women,” I said. “Didn’t you think the rest of the movie was great?”
“I don’t like endings like that,” my mother said. “It didn’t make any sense.”
“Why would he want to kill her?” my father asked again.
I thought about saying the guy clearly had problems with his mother, but that didn’t seem like a promising path to pursue. So, I mentioned how humid it had been recently.
“I don’t know you stand living here,” my mother said.
That took place years ago, before my mother’s death in 1997 and my father’s gradual lapse into Alzheimer’s. Just because you no longer talk to your parents, though, doesn’t mean they’re no longer with you. Often, I can almost hear them talking, knowing what they would say — how they would have loved Sarah Palin, would have been big Tea Partiers, would have demanded we “teach the controversy” about evolution and creationism.
You break out of one world view, though, and then you have to form your own. At first, it’s easy. You reject just about everything your parents ever stood for. Later, hopefully, you get smarter about your own views and choices; kneejerk reactions are a great source of idiocy. What do you really think and believe in and why? Are you sure?
All of which was occurring to me on a pretty regular basis when my husband and I visited MoMA last week. Much of it I loved — the Cartier-Bresson exhibit, the exhibition from South African artist William Kentridge, whom I’d never heard of before, the unexpected glimpse of one of the most incredible paintings on earth, Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.”
My husband had already launched into his usual MoMA complaints: Why does a museum that touts itself as modern keep its collection of old-fashioned Impressionists and other paintings that date back to the 19th and 20th centuries? To make his point, he began to freely use air quotes around modern, with enough finger gestures going on that you would have thought Helen Keller was in the vicinity.
“What do you want them to do? Dump their Picassos because they’re old?” I asked.
“Send them to the Met,” he said. “Get some new stuff.”
I’d heard it all a zillion times before and pretended to be blind and deaf myself. What he didn’t complain about, though, was Middle-European performance artist Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present.
The exhibition included Abramovic herself in her most recent performance art exhibition, where she and a volunteer sat facing each other at a wooden table in the middle of a large room. The series of volunteers, mostly young people, lined up for an opportunity to freeze and stare at Abramovic for as long as they could. That’s what they were doing: they were immobile and staring for minutes, hours at a time, while a crowd watched appreciatively from the sidelines. We were part of the crowd for several minutes, watching and waiting — for what?
We stood up and walked to re-created scenes of Abramovic’s earlier work. A man and a woman, both naked, standing a few inches apart at the entrance to a room; you could squeeze past them if you wanted to get in (and believe me, it was a tight squeeze). In another room, looped videos of a disrobed woman (Abramovic herself, I believe) fondled her own breasts. A closeup of a face was featured above a changing series of words: “Playboy. PistoleHo. Filth,” one series read.
In another video, a group of women in full skirts ran around and rolled on the ground and lifted their skirts for lots of closeup shots so you could see they weren’t wearing underwear. (Real closeups, believe me; I’m not sure my own gynecologist knows me that well.)
“Is there any way you can be a performance artist and not be a narcissist?” I asked my husband.
We wandered back downstairs, where Abramovic, in her red robe, continued to stare at the latest volunteer. It got much more exciting when the volunteer, a young man, finally stood up, walked away and was replaced by someone else. Murmurs spread through the crowd.
“You’ve got to hand it to Abramovic,” my husband said as we left. “Everybody was talking about her work. The audience was completely engaged in the work — in fact, they were part of it. That’s what art should be.”
Well, at least he’d stopped talking about trashing the Picassos. I walked along and thought about how Abramovic’s endurance contest reminded me of nothing so much of the documentary, Hands on a Hard Body, which was about people who stood for days with their hands on a pickup truck. The winner – after long days and nights of standing — got the truck.
Oh, Lord, art — whether modern or performance or whatever you call it. I get the whole epater la bourgeoisie business. Shock people like my parents. Shock me, maybe, even if I try to resist being shocked, since that would show how provincial I am. But what about the whole bullshit factor? Will somebody look back someday and say, really, this was kind of ridiculous? Shocking — but to what end?
Hell, what do I know? I still have no idea why the singer got killed in Nashville. Art gives you questions, but no answers. Those you have to come up with yourself. Here are a couple:
1) You are still your parents’ child, one way or another. Resistance may be futile.
2) It was quite humid that day in New York. I don’t think my parents would have liked it.
(Copyright 2010 by Ruth Pennebaker)
Read one of my favorite posts about a support group gone amok