Marina Abramovic is probably the most celebrated performance artist in the world. She's also the subject of a new, engaging documentary called The Artist is Present, currently airing on HBO and in select cities around the world. For the first half of this new film we see Abramovic's past performance work, learn about her unique history, and follow the months leading up to her historic and wildly successful 2010 show at MoMA.
And then in the second half, we watch her do nothing but sit in a chair in the middle of an empty room and stare at thousands of strangers in the eyes, every single day, for over two months.
The event was a feat of performance endurance, surely, and also a beautiful collection of moving images, with thousands of visitors rounding the globe just to sit with Abramovic in New York and join in the project. It was art and prowess mixed, the largest performance exhibition ever mounted at the MoMA, and the longest duration piece ever performed in a museum, spanning 736 hours and 30 minutes.
Though the piece was still Art with a capital A, something most of America remains skeptical of (see many of the angry responses to these pieces for proof,) the show received national media attention. Even Fox News was forced to cover this thing, although in the segment featured in the documentary, anchor Megyn Kelly questions whether we should actually call this whole show "art" at all, and she refers to Abramovic, who has won countless international awards and accolades, as "some Yugoslavian-born provocateur" you might find on the street.
But still. Still! They were paying attention, and that says something. With a project of this scale, so physically demanding and impossible to ignore, they had to. Even if Megyn Kelly doesn't care that the National Endowment for the Arts budget is continuously slashed year after year, or that major orchestras and museums are going bankrupt, constantly defending their ability to simply exist anymore, she has to care if something extraordinary is happening, even if it is a piece of art.
We have to remind people that art is important, impressive, even virtuosic, even if it seems absurd to do so, since these days we spend more time arguing about "what art is" than about how we can continue to keep it alive. What if we told you that our dangerously low art-appreciation levels are also affecting kids? The NEA has released countless studies detailing how beneficial arts education can be for young people -- students exposed to arts education in high school were far more likely to read newspapers, to vote in elections and go to college, according to the most recent -- yet our country continues to slash arts education in public schools (less than 50 percent of 18-year-olds reported having received any arts education at all, the NEA reported,) with barely a peep from the country at large.
But if capital-a-Art can reach those who are most skeptical, those who might not donate to their local modern art museum but still appreciate feats of human strength and American talent, then here's an idea for putting the Arts back in the public consciousness...
The Arts Olympics.
Apparently we used to have them. From 1912 to 1948 the Olympic Games had a subdivision dedicated to handing out medals in arts events, like literature and architecture and visual arts and music (ironic for the latter, since this year musicians were barely paid to participate even on the sidelines.) Is it crazy to imagine us bringing them back?
Smithsonian recently interviewed author Richard Stanton, whose "Forgotten Olympic Art Competitions" is still the only English-language book ever published on the subject, and he reminded us that at the Olympiads of Ancient Greece, "the sport exhibitions walked in equality with artistic exhibitions." But in the arts events of the 1900s, he said, all the entries had to be "sports-themed," i.e, paintings about sports, writing about sports, sculptures of athletes, etc. so more serious artists were often skeptical of entering (although Picasso probably could have drawn a pretty sick bobsledder.)
Ironically, the closest that serious -- what some would consider capital-A -- artists come to performing for the masses, at least in the last decade, is through reality television. Opera singers have made it to the finals on The Voice, music and dance virtuosos perform on America's Got Talent, and designers of various stripes compete on Bravo's reality smorgasbord.
There are more artists working in America than ever before, and more online outlets for them to showcase their work, yet by aligning themselves with higher art institutions, they often limit the amount of people they can reach, since so many people remain skeptical of anything remotely highbrow.
But imagine: prodigal guitarists competing for a gold, sculptors given an hour to do something incredible with clay, filmmakers scrambling together a 24-hour film festival for an international audience, the world's greatest writers delivering readings of their work on the steps of the Coliseum.
Maybe you're thinking that art isn't supposed to be a competition. On NPR, Olympic historian John MacAloon said artists who participated in the earlier Olympic events were skeptical of competing against fellow artists, leading many to avoid the events. "Artists themselves are not always really happy to compete directly with one another. And when they do, they would prefer a jury of their peers," he said.
So fine -- the judges will be other artists, just like we do with the Grammys and the Oscars and the host of other awards we give out every year.
But here's a chance for the Megyn Kellys of the world to actually root for other artists, to cheer them on with a big "U.S.A! U.S.A!" instead of shitting on them, and isn't that what this country is all about? Beating other countries? Somehow, it doesn't seem too unrealistic to imagine.
Artists will always be here and money will always be scarce -- it's part of the game -- but we need to start thinking of new ways to reach people who might not want to spend a gazillion dollars on a ticket to Broadway or the opera or the philharmonic, to show them that masterful Artists still exist, and they can still impress the hell out of you.