Amanda Johnson

Amanda Johnson studies painting and philosophy and teaches a course on "the art of looking at Art" in Memphis, Tennessee.

Eclipsing the Object

In 2001, a work by Damien Hirst, an installation piece valued at six figures and consisting of, “a collection of half-full coffee cups, ashtrays with cigarette butts, empty beer bottles, a paint-smeared palette” and “newspaper pages strewn around the floor,” was efficiently disposed of by a cleaning man. Said that man, Emmanuel Asare: “As soon as I clapped eyes on it, I sighed because there was so much mess. It didn’t look much like art to me. So I cleared it all in bin bags, and I dumped it.”[1] “To mistake an artwork for a real object” wrote the philosopher Arthur Danto, “is no great feat when an artwork is the real object one mistakes it for.”[2] Yet these mistakes almost never occur inside the art gallery or museum. There, things are nailed down, and in the museum we are inspired to consider the ontological status of each artifact. In fact, if you have ever walked through a museum exhibiting art made in the last century, you have also exhausted yourself wondering whether and why that is art, moving from room to room in a frenzy of philosophy, haunted by the ontological question, seeing its face in every flower.

Anish Kapoor's "Marsyas."

It is taken for granted that this has anything intrinsic to do with the actual appreciation of art. But if attempting to define art is a repeated fact of our experience ,with artworks it does not follow that it is a natural part of that experience, that it ought to be a part of it. Really, there are two sides: those on one side contend that the enjoyment of art and the contemplation of its nature are often one and the same thing; art is merely the handmaid to philosophy, exists just to illustrate it, and then, sometimes, in a circular coincidence, this philosophy is also about Art. The “impressive thing” they said about Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, was that they were “art at all.” Art about Art; art which, if it stood for anything, stood most remarkably for Art.[3] On the other hand, another school of thought maintains that appreciating art is about looking, that what counts is the art’s form, and it should be enjoyed and evaluated on that basis.

But okay—we’ve forgotten how to look. “More of us spend time in museums and art galleries than ever before” writes the critic Roger Kimball, “but how much time and attention is spent in informed and careful looking?”[4] It is, after all, relatively easy to drift through the museum on a cloud of philosophy—or inside it, in a fog—and easy to read labels and listen to audio tours, but looking? We don’t know how to look at art. Looking is hard. Looking hurts when we do it.

Fortunately, we have experts. We have critics and scholars whose educated example is drawing into greater focus an every gently-sloping foothill in the artworld panorama. Together, they compose our Peterson Guide to the arts.

About the work of Anish Kapor one expert has this to tell us:

The truly made work is thus enriched because it introduces into the expanded field of the object, that displaced movement of ‘thirdness’, the diagonal relation, that inscribes something that remains nameless, that something that moves the material beyond itself, towards the other, surviving at the point of invisibility, sustaining the unthought.[5]

What is going on here? There is no attentive analysis, no thoughtful observation, no well-founded interpretation, no art object at all — only dark abstractions in tightly woven obscurantism. The theoretical has finally eclipsed the object. A century ago the philosopher Clive Bell defined the art critic as a medium between public appreciation and cultural artifact: “To be continually pointing out those parts, the sum, or rather the combination, of which unite to produce [artistic] form, is the function of criticism…This [the critic] can do only by making me see…”[6] How things have changed! Academic trend, authorizing the reduction of artworks to models of theory, has seduced commentary into relationship with the quasi-philosophical. Ensnared in allegiance to the abstract and opaque, criticism bears little connection to sharpening public vision, even less to vision itself.

The review above has something to do with Anish Kapoor (a “something that remains nameless”). The public adores Anish Kapoor; his sculpture in Chicago, “Cloud Gate”—that delicious, molten bean—“is claimed to be the world’s most popular work of art” and Kapoor’s 2009 Royal Academy show was allegedly “the most successful exhibition by a contemporary artist ever seen in London.”[7] Perhaps this is because Kapoor’s work displays an uncommon sensuousness. A few years ago the artist became infatuated with a messy blood-red wax. Here it is, in one example, whittled into an immense wheel frozen in extrusion through the aperture of a blade that could have been lent by the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.[8] Kapoor’s relationship with the public and his work’s visual and tactile qualities augur scholarship with a plain-spoken, democratic feel and careful progression from observable qualities to outlying meanings. If observant and concrete literature on art is available, you would expect to find it in connection with Anish Kapoor. Instead, perception, description, experience—in short, aesthetics—are prejudicially shut out. Their going leaves a void. The title of the aforementioned review is “Making Emptiness.” Well then, tu quoque, brother.

There is more like this on the Tate Modern museum website, so theory is not confined, but displays itself in the most public places, embarrassing everyone. In 2002, Kapoor inflated one of his more monumental sculptures, Marsyas, inside Turbine Hall at London’s Tate Modern: a red polyvinyl web stretched trunk-like from a circular base and then split to effloresce at two ends in gaping sleeves. The sculpture filled the many-storied hall; visitors looked pitiful next to it. “Anish Kapoor,” a writer assays in a blurb by a photo of Marsyas, “is renowned for his enigmatic sculptural forms that permeate physical and psychological space…he has explored what he sees as deep-rooted metaphysical polarities: presence and absence, being and non-being, place and non-place and the solid and the intangible…”[9]

But it is unclear how the first statement is not totally vacuous. Certainly all objects “permeate physical and psychological space.” And although it may be true that Kapoor’s work deals with metaphysical themes, it is not possible that it is about “metaphysical polarities.” Metaphysics, as a theoretical science of objective fact, is limited to examining the facts of being or place, not the non-entities of absence or non-place.

Marsyas is a gargantuan sculptural installation, and because its form changes fundamentally with the perspective of its viewer it is difficult to describe. Kapoor, who is unfailingly philosophical, would probably say something about it such as: “Marsyas subverts the notion of “object” because it offers nothing objective to the common viewer at all, nothing singular or constant; the concept of Marsyas the sculpture changes all the time. Really, there is no Marsyas.”[10]

But Kapoor would be underselling himself because what is true of Marsyas at this level is also true of anything colossal. Perhaps the artist could acquiesce to something more earthly.

A prominent aspect of Marsyas is its deep, mouthy sleeves. Deep space is fascinating, and the sleeves, which are large enough to hold train cars, suck the eye up and into them like a flower drawing a bee. Without the ribbing in the polyvinyl, there would be less psychological force to the shape; the ribs act as vectors which propel the eye. The pull extends to the rest of the body and gazing up into a blossom produces an anticipation of suction: a vacuum could start in the belly of the sculpture behind its apertures and a blossom could tilt and bring you up inside it and you would never see your home or family again. Or, if you prefer, the sleeves are fluted like a trumpet or a gramophone, and a gigantic, rushing sound seems imminent. The form is imprecise, but the feeling in common is dread.

Because Marsyas is several stories high, it is surmounted by walkways and from there, apparently, a person can look down across the entire sculpture and take in both its massive trunk and the two brachial tubes that open into blossoms. The ribbing which pulses through the entire sculpture is especially felt along the tubular arms, where the symmetry of the arms reinforces the effect of their straining or being pulled from the main trunk: adding a third or fourth arm would have interrupted the sweep of the eye from end to end and mitigated the perceived tension along the sculpture’s back. Around the arms and trunk the contours of the sculpture are soft, but then the stems enlarge suddenly into forced mouths. It is unnatural that the delicate stems should gape into ellipses like a plated bottom lip. There is strain here, Kapoor wants to say, but it is traumatic, not therapeutic. It is coerced and terrible. The composer Arvo Part was inspired by Marsyas, wrote the elegiac “Lamentate” concerto, and performed the work beneath the sculpture in 2002. The fact feels like a corollary: we don’t need to know that the work’s title refers to a satyr “who was flayed alive by the god Apollo” to understand Part’s inspiration—Marsyas is full of violence.[11]

The preponderance of theory-based art in the last century has made philosophy inescapable, and we have forgotten how to look. “More of us spend time in museums and art galleries than ever before but how much time and attention is spent in informed and careful looking?”[12] It may be, as countless scholars are led to believe, that there is really nothing important to see, that theory is the noblest content of art, that the most profound and essentially artistic of truths occupy the precinct of ideation rather than experience. But then, how plainly works like Marsyas evince the contrary.


[1] Donald Kuspit, The End of Art (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), From a selection of epigraphs to the text.

[2] Arthur C. Danto, “The Artworld,” in The Philosophy of Art, eds. Alex Neill and Aaron Ridley (New York: Mc-Graw Hill, Inc., 1995), 205.

[3] Ibid., 581.

[4] Roger Kimball, Art’s Prospect (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2003), 262.

[5] Homi K.Bhabha, “Making Emptiness,” Anish Kapoor, http://www.anishkapoor.com/185/Making-Emptiness-by-Homi-K.-Bhabha.html.

[6] Clive Bell, Art (New York: Capricorn Books, 1958), 18.

[7] Mark Hudson, “Anish Kapoor: Leviathan, Monumenta 2011, Grand Palais, Paris, Review,” The Telegraph, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-reviews/8506594/Anish-Kapoor-Leviathan-Monumenta-2011-Grand-PalaisParis-review.html.

[10] Kapoor has titled at least three of his works Non-Object.

[11] Tate Modern, Op. cit.

[12] Roger Kimball, Op.cit.

The Art of Marina Abramovic and the Prophesy of Matthew Arnold

The upside-down values of the art world, popularly infamous, ridiculed, and resented, are by now the mark of the sphere itself, sufficient to establish the cynic’s principle that if you wish to succeed in the art world, do what you would never dream of doing in the real one. Take for instance Chris Burden’s 1971 performance piece Shoot, remembered in photographs with the artist’s dry captioning: “At 7:45 P.M. I was shot in the left arm by a friend. The bullet was a copper jacket .22 long rifle. My friend was standing about fifteen feet from me.” Burden was later awarded four grants by the National Endowment for the Arts; respected New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl calls him “pretty great.”

The Artist is Present.

More recent in what has been named “ordeal art” was the late spring retrospective of Marina Abramovic at the Museum of Modern Art; an exhibition titled “The Artist is Present,” and the backdrop to a history-making endurance performance by Abramovic of the same name. For this, the longest performance staged in a museum, the artist sat motionless and silent eight to ten hours a day for nearly three months at the center of MoMA’s atrium. A preceding interview with the New York Observer stated that “Ms. Abramovic . . . expects her new piece to be one of the most physically and mentally punishing pieces she has ever undertaken” [1] — a far more meaningful statement taken in the context of her oeuvre. In 1973, Abramovic gave her first performance, Rhythm 10, which involved stabbing her fingers twenty times. For Rhythm 2, the artist swallowed psychopharmaceuticals to induce seizures and stupor. In 2004, for The House with an Ocean View, she fasted on display for twelve days, housed within three massive squares bolted to the interior of the Sean Kelly Gallery.

Although the performances may look like irrational feats of masochism, Abramovic’s work is rooted in ancient religious and philosophic traditions. The artist’s spiritual counselor is Lama Doboom Tulku Rinpoche; clearly, Abramovic has absorbed the Buddhist doctrine which emphasizes mortification as a facilitator of the mental states leading out from suffering to enlightenment. Reviewers even describe the artist’s experience onstage as a “spiritual transformation” although Abramovic mentors her young students through ascetic practices which more resemble the earthly, psychological methodology of late Greek Stoicism — the conditioning of the emotions against life’s unkind vicissitudes. Extreme asceticism is often a compound, or a conflation, of physical and spiritual transcendence, a confusion of chemistry and divine inspiration. Abramovic’s performances are no different: “All the aggressive actions I do to myself,” the artist told the New Yorker, “I would never dream of doing in my own life — I am not this kind of person. In performance, I become, somehow, like not a mortal.” [2] The practice is akin to Shinto coal-walking and the Whirling Dervish’s whirl: suffering staged to find the gods, and to become like one.

Still, to define Abramovic’s performances as ascetic exercise would be a contradiction; a performance as such has purposes which can only be fulfilled by an audience. Biographer James Westcott explains that “Marina has always seen her art as a kind of public service” [3] and in a March interview with the New Yorker, the artist described her own work as “heroic, legendary, and transformative” — the chance to “elevate viewers’ spirits and give them courage. If I can go through the door of pain to embrace life on the other said, they can, too.” [4] But Abramovic intends more than simple inspiration. She speaks often of baring “the energy of the soul,” and the transfer of what could be called a “religious experience,” the artist acting as spiritual medium. “The idea (of The House with an Ocean View) the artist told an interviewer, “was pure experiment: what would happen if I purify myself by not talking and not eating for a certain period of time. Can I project that to create a sort of invisible energy?” [5]

Abramovic’s statements are mysterious, mystical, and if we don’t understand what the artist means by them it is only greater evidence that the work intends to be spiritual food: “The built-in trouble with all these existential experiences” writes Francis Schaeffer, “is that the content of such an experience is not open to communication. Only the unknowing would demand, ‘Please describe to me in normal categories what you have experienced.’” [6] If the meanings attached to Abramovic’s work are inscrutable it is because they occur foremost as experiences, experiences that summon power, energy, knowledge, whatever, for the laity and artist-as-priest. The rites, however, are nothing like true faith, as they exchange orthodoxy for experiment.

Here it is impossible to ignore the words of poet Matthew Arnold, who imagined that art would one day supplant religion. [7] History shows that the substitution becomes urgent when religion is rejected or fails: Nietzsche’s proclamation of the death of God foretold the spiritual hunger of Gauguin, Marc, Kandinsky, Mondrian, and many other early moderns. Kandinsky sought to reclaim “the soul and the spirit of the twentieth century” through a new art, and Gauguin painted What? Whence? Whither? in existential despair.

The recent work of Marina Abramovic could be said to represent the height of this idolatry; in an inevitable conclusion, art has not only supplanted religion, but absorbed it. [8] Art has gained so much of religion that it can no longer support its own nature, and as a result, the aesthetic has been lost — eloquence, symbol, and material relinquished for utility.

Abramovic’s oeuvre captures this evolution in the microcosm of its own timeline. Occasional symbolism has given way to the experiential purity of performances like The House with an Ocean View and The Artist is Present. But even at the beginning the performances preferred scientific clarity to artistic emotion, presenting Abramovic’s usually naked body like meat hung at the butcher’s. Over time, the material has only been further reduced: Designing The Artist is Present at MoMA Abramovic exchanged stage and props for the white space of the atrium and a Shaker-simple table and chairs, inviting audience members to sit opposite her in meditative silence; little is needed when artist and audience are there only to “exchange energy.” [9]

Even to the art world’s infrequent visitor it is obvious that the mainstream is polluted, desecrated by pornography, violence, and kitsch, what British philosopher Roger Scruton calls signs of “the degradation of art” and of an overwhelming “spiritual hunger and longing.” [10] It is easy to condemn the self-torture of Burden’s and Abramovic’s performances like Shoot and Rhythm 10, to view the cutting, shooting, and stabbing as evidence of this degradation and longing. It is more difficult to see that performances like the one Abramovic recently endured at MoMA imply the same. If Burden’s violence affirms the spiritual deficit, then Abramovic’s MoMA experiment is an attempt to fill this void. We have erected art where faith once stood, and the substitution has left art shattered. Perhaps this proves what history has been trying to tell us all along — that art cannot exist where faith does not; that truth, goodness, and beauty are strands intertwined.


[1] Yablonsky, Linda. “Taking it to the Limits.” ARTnews December 2009: p. 91 3 July 2010 http://www.skny.com/artists/marina-abramovi/press/

[2] Judith Thurman “Walking through Walls.” The New Yorker 8 March 2010: p. 26 3 July 2010 http://www.skny.com/artists/marina-abramovi/press/

[3] Neyfakh, Leon. “Queen of Pain.” New York Observer 1 March 2010. 3 July 2010 http://www.skny.com/artists/marina-abramovi/press/

[4]Thurman, Op. cit.

[5] Morgan Falconer, “The Art and Death of Marina Abramovic” Art World Magazine Oct/Nov 2008: p. 40 28 August 2010 http://www.skny.com/artists/marina-abramovi/press/

[6] Francis A. Schaeffer, The God Who is There (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1968), p. 28

[7] “The Study of Poetry” in Poetry and Criticism of Matthew Arnold, ed. A. Dwight Culler (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1961), p. 306.

[8] Gene Edward Veith, Jr. State of the Arts (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1991), p. 138.

[9] Thurman, Op. cit., p. 26.

[10] Roger Scruton, Beauty (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), p.188.