12/06/2011 06:21 pm ET | Updated Feb 05, 2012

Would Hollywood Tolerate Marina Abramovic Rehash?

The Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) gypped the one percent out of some hoarded cash at a dinner theater fundraiser featuring Marina "Stare-Down" Abramovic extending her eyeball brand imagery (read an on-scene coverage by Susan Michals here). I skipped digging deep on the big ticket when an invite to an honest-to-goodness Hollywood movie premiere came my way! Red carpet, flashbulbs, some nice gowns and expensive shoes. The glamor for which MOCA was desperately trawling downtown was in such ample supply West of Robertson that fabulousness seemed like a casual aside to the art on the big screen itself.

While MOCA's über patrons were watching Marina Abramovic regurgitate her signature performance style as ghoulishly disembodied dinner table centerpieces (seriously, click that link and tell me you could dine with that), I took in the LA premiere of director Angela Garcia Combs' Nothing Special. Quite the misnomer, as the picture features a co-starring, scene stealing Karen Black, one of cinema's most interesting actresses. Unlike Abramovic's extension of eye-gazing as a trademark, here was a veteran artist pushing fearlessly into new territory. The art world glamorizes retreads every day, and did so to the tune of $1,500 per ticket this time.


Julia Garcia Combs and Karen Black (center) in "Nothing Special"

What an odd time, then, to be a thespian in Los Angeles. While Karen Black dives into the hilarious yet poignant role of a bi-polar mother in a small, independent gem of a film, Abramovic takes no risks in reprising the act of extended eye contact with the viewer. L.A. gets east coast sloppy seconds after almost two years of Marina's non-stop media coverage for simply sitting and staring at Museum of Modern Art passersby, while independent film gets no kudos from the avant garde for rewarding artists who go beyond their comfort zone.

The art world tries to codify greatness at the institutional level with a myopia that celebrates the trivial and ignores anything associated with craft. Craft is a four-letter word in art world math class. The documentation of what MOCA commissioned Marina Abramovic to create as an installation/ performance for its annual fundraising dinner bordered on the unwittingly self-satiric. From its use of living performers delivered as heads-only, to its pretentious insistence that the audience wear lab coats, this performance embodied unentertaining kitsch.

The pathetic need to cement celebrity credibility by bringing out Debbie Harry firmly locked Abramovich's performance into cutting edge, circa 1981. Media documentation and penned internet retellings of the event by various performers and audience members only sicken a neutral observer suspicious of suspending disbelief at the premise that a staring artist merits institutional celebration. The net impact of the coverage seems to be a denuding of any possible glamor that being a museum patron could ever carry in this town again.

The art world's celebration of hack pretense abominations like Abramovic is maddening. The wider culture is in a ceaseless celebration of all things orbiting the entertainment world. The art world practically exists as a respite from the trendy flavors of the minute. And yet, when an art institution sets the bar so low as to allow a celebration of Abramovic's abortion staring in your face, the audience's silent toleration of such played-out shock seriousness borders on complicit self-mockery. Why need one explain away enjoying Karen Black's masterful 1977 performances in TV's Trilogy of Terror as a "guilty pleasure" and nod in polite agreement that Abramovic is "important and influential"? Kitsch with pedigree is still just kitsch, why settle for rehashed eyeballs when there is a Zulu warrior cooking in the oven?

If art institutions are to embody the caliber of seriousness implied in the status of their holdings and the prestige by association that we collectively grant them, they should adopt a modicum of meritocracy. Hollywood's independent films feature historically important actresses broadening their craft, taking risks and making great art in the process, all with barely a prayer that the institutional award bodies will notice them. Meanwhile the most celebrated New York performance artist of her time casually leans on the Blondie catalog to vainly pump credibility into the contemporary art institution. Up is down, black is white, and you can get anything you want, except actual art, at MOCA's $1,500 restaurant.