How Marina Abramovic Legitimized Shia LaBeouf
First Shia LaBeouf was called out on plagiarism for various pieces he created, most notably a short film. Then he walked out of a press conference for Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac Part 1 at the Berlinale after quoting football player Eric Cantona, “When the seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea.” That night, he showed up on the red carpet in black tie with a brown-paper bag on his head inscribed with “I AM NOT FAMOUS ANYMORE.”
The world quickly realized it had been trolled in the same way it had been trolled by Miley Cyrus’ twerking; Shia the child actor was reinventing himself as a conceptual performance artist, just as Miley was announcing her seriousness in not only abandoning Hannah Montana but outright murdering her in public. Sure enough, a couple of days later LaBeouf was sitting in a gallery in L.A. with that same inscribed paper bag on his head, still in black tie, imitating the live interactive portion of queen-of-performance-artists Marina Abramovic’s “The Artist is Present,” her in situ staring contest with complete strangers.
Abramovic had two choices in the face of this appropriation: ignore it, or acknowledge it with a commentary. She chose to react in what appear to be off-the-cuff remarks to Vulture:
First of all, I can’t think that this is directly related to me. He has a paper bag on his head, is that right? I’m very happy people are inspired by [my] work, but this is not the same work. I don’t see it as anything to do with me… It’s so manipulative, and it’s so complicated to answer. It’s very interesting to me that the Hollywood world wanted to go back to performance, which is something so different than what they are doing. Maybe they need our experience; maybe they need simplicity; maybe they need to be connected to [the] direct public, which, you know, being a Hollywood actor doesn’t permit you.”
It’s actually not “complicated” at all. But by making it complicated, or more specifically by complicating Shia’s appropriation — we should no longer call it plagiarism — Abramovic has dubbed him a legitimate fine artist in the modern-art sense of the term.
When Vulture first reported Abramovic’s statement, made at the opening of Matthew Barney’s new film at BAM, they titled their post “Marina Abramovic Calls Shia LaBeouf’s Performance Art ‘Manipulative.’” They amended the title to a noncommittal “Marina Abramovic on Shia LaBeouf’s Performance Art” ostensibly because “it was not clear whether Abramovic was referring to the art or the discussion surrounding it.” I don’t know whether Abramovic herself complained to Vulture — probably — but it’s fairly clear that she’d spoken before clearly thinking through what LaBeouf is doing, in its full context and background. She was clearly sounding hypocritical; if there is one thing Abramovic understands it is manipulation. She also knows that the age-old tradition of one artist appropriating another artist’s work, of paying homage to it, of reworking it to his individual context and style is perfectly within the realm of any serious discussion about fine art.
I don’t think Vulture should have changed the title of the post. Abramovic’s noodle-brained statement about the Hollywood world wanting to go back to performance is manifestly manipulative in its own right.; it attempts to elevate the performance artist above the entertainer. Her statements are the ultimate example of the fine-art world’s rather commonplace intellectualization of something that is, philosophically speaking, no different at all.
Modern art relies on these intellectualizations, these complications, no matter how forced, no matter how specious. Intellectualizations and complications are the art world’s stock in trade, what gives Abramovic and her work value. If they sound wankerish — and I used that in its literal, masturbatory meaning — that’s because they are wankerish. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Just forgive me if I chuckle, “Oh, please,” at Abramovic’s senseless condescension.
A few years ago, a young filmmaker friend was hired to shoot a video installation for a fine artist, very minor relative to Abramovic, but still riding on a grant of some kind. The artist’s installation was basically a series of random travelogue images of bleak Birmingham, England that told no cohesive story — heaven forbid narrative, too “Hollywood world”! The film was projected on a screen in a small dark room.
While editing the piece, my friend began pulling stills from the moving image. She found them beautiful, and they were. If printed large, they would look like they belonged in a gallery; they were as good as anything art photographer Juergen Teller might show. My friend rightly assumed that if she put a show of these sorts of images together — and she intended to grab stills from other projects as well, not just the Birmingham piece — then she could sell these and make a lot more money than her day rate as a filmmaker, for far less time and effort.
Even though I knew it wasn’t that easy, I didn’t want to discourage my friend from her quest. My opinion wouldn’t mean anything, anyway, because I have no status in the fine-art world. And my friend’s logic was correct: she is a creator of superior, evocative images; she is one of the powerhouse visualists of her generation, albeit in the “Hollywood world.” Her work should be as valuable, as desirable as any more established fine artist.
Rather than being patriarchal and didactic about what I knew of the art world, I took her to meet another friend, one of the foremost gallerists in London. As she put it, the gallerist was a “total dick.” He listened to her rather impolitely, then summed up why her work couldn’t be sold, no matter how beautiful or powerful: “A great deal of thought goes into what my artists do.” And she didn’t think about anything but how the imaged looked. So Hollywood world.
Indeed, good art must appeal on three levels: visually, viscerally, and intellectually. Even the classic great masters put a great deal of thought into what they were creating — symbolism and narrative abound in old masterpieces from all cultures. But modern art is particularly reliant on intellectualization, to a degree that I find imbalances its merit in many instances.
Commentary by art critics is essential to the discussion surrounding art. If an artist isn’t written up by someone notable, he can’t expect the value of his work to increase. And if he is lucky enough to be written up by a notable critic, he’d better have something worthy to say. This is part of the reason my gallerist friend was such a dick to my filmmaker friend: She had nothing to say about the meaning of her images other than they were “gorgeous” or “moving” or, “I love them.” Where’s the discussion in that?
By and large, I find art criticism impossible to read beyond a few paragraphs. A lot of it has to do with the fact I don’t like being told what to think. And if a piece needs to be understood to be appreciated because it utterly lacks visual and visceral appeal, then it’s not for me, anyway.; the emperor must be wearing something more than words and overwrought thought.
My perspective on this was solidified a decade or so ago when I was roped into the negotiations over an artist’s estate. The deceased artist wasn’t appreciated much in his lifetime, which didn’t surprise me: his work had no appeal for me on any level, visually, viscerally or intellectually. An Iranian family I am close to inherited the bulk of his work. If I didn’t understand the artist’s work, they certainly didn’t, but they were paying for the warehousing of it at considerable expense every year. They were keen to unload this spurious treasure trove, but the only person who was remotely interested in buying it was a rock superstar. And he wanted it in toto, no fragmenting the collection and selling it piecemeal. But he was dragging his feet, so I was brought in to find another group of investors to whom they could to offload it.
The only way for me to perform my duties as a viable threat that moved negotiations along was to identify an equivalent superstar, an art collector from the financial world, and I found the chairman of the largest, most prestigious investment bank at the time to fill that role, believably.
The cornerstone to establishing value for this collection was a rather anodyne article written by the doyen of late-twentieth-century art critics, Henry Geldzahler. Without this write-up, the collection was essentially the well-intentioned, ugly garbage that it really was; no price-per-piece had ever been established during the artist’s lifetime that warranted the asking price for the entire collection.
What irked me is that the rock superstar had himself paid Geldzahler to write his ‘objective’ criticism when both critic and artist were still alive. The superstar had artificially created value for something he intended to acquire cheaply, perhaps with no regard to its actual artistic merit. This manipulation, as Abramovic would call it, pissed me off in the extreme. I did exactly what the Iranian family wanted me to do because I was so pissed off that I came genuinely close to putting a higher offer on the table and actually making my financial boss go through with the deal. Which means the deal with superstar went through extra quickly; years of gridlock over the deal were cleared in a matter of days.
Part of the deal was I had to surrender all hard copes of Geldzahler’s review. To consolidate the deceased artist’s value, a massive coffee-table book was commissioned and published by superstar. The intro to that hefty tome, of course, was Geldzahler’s fake, positive criticism. (Apparently he was quite hard up at the end of his life, poor guy. I only met him a few times, briefly, but he was a jovial old queen.)
In other words, commentary is king. What Abramovic and Vulture call “the discussion” determines the artist’s value. By acknowledging that there is a discussion at all about LaBeouf’s work, whether manipulative or complicated, Abramovic-as-art-critic has removed him from the trough of a meta-troll, Hollywood-world plagiarist into the realm of serious artist. It’s a transposition that neither she nor her sycophants — sorry ‘critics’ — can unmake.
So far, so genius, Shia: You’ve turned The Discussion on its precious ear. Celebrity-performer-as-performance-artist is acknowledged by the quintessential celebrity performance artist.
It’s all “Hollywood world.” Good luck to you, man. Keep going.